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August ninth is the birthday of the longest-running public service ad campaign in U.S. history.

Since 1944, Smokey Bear has asked Americans to help prevent dangerous wildfires.

In the ‘50s, a live bear rescued from a wildfire in New Mexico became a symbol of the campaign.

“This true story of this tiny little bear cub who was abandoned and badly burned in a human-caused fire … [who] got vaulted into the national limelight and got sent to the National Zoo for the rest of his days, where he was visited by millions of people from all over the world,” says Mary Lavin, manager of Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico.

At the park, visitors can learn about the real-life cub and the history of the Forest Service’s wildfire prevention program.

The program – and the Smokey Bear campaign – have evolved over time as forest managers learned more about how controlled fires can improve forest health.

But accidental fires, which can start with campfire embers, cigarettes, or fireworks, remain a grave danger — especially as climate change brings hotter, drier conditions.

So Lavin says that Smokey’s campaign reminds people: “We don’t want unplanned, catastrophic human-caused fires, and you can play a role and make a difference.”

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media