Smokey The Bear and the WUI

Do you remember — Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires

Athena Intelligence
5 min readAug 9, 2023

Today, August 9, is the Birthday of Smokey, the iconic bear which in 1944 became the symbol used to promote fire safety. Today, Smokey is 79 and has the longest running public service campaign in US history.

The famous tag line was initiated in 1947, with the change to the current, Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires, in 2001. Smokey was initiated by, and is associated with, the US Forestry Service, but is also used by the National Association of State Foresters.

The US Forest Service was a creation of President Theodore Roosevelt which really became established after the forest fire of 1910. That wildfire, known as the Big Burn, Big Blowup or the Great Fire of 1910, burnt an area the size of Connecticut (3 million acres) over the first two days — in an area that included parts of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Southeast British Columbia. Strong winds helped the fire expand to destroy multiple towns, killed 87 people and become the largest wildfire in US history.

National Public Radio: Teddy Roosevelt & The Fire That Saved The Forests

But during World War II, many experienced firefighters were sent overseas, leaving few men to fight wildfires. During the war, the USFS began warning the public about the dangers of wildfires and launched a Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program. The focus was both making people aware of Japanese efforts to start wildfires in California and the risk of carelessness with cigarettes, campfires and other activities that could ignite a fire.

On August 9, 1944, Smokey Bear was introduced by the US Forest Service on a poster for the CFFP. Smokey was inspired by a New York City Fire Department hero, “Smokey” Joe Martin, who suffered burns and blindness during a bold 1922 rescue. Then, in 1950, a 3-month-old American black bear cub was found after the Capitan Gap fire: he had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws were burned. A New Mexico Ranger, working with a local vet, helped him heal. The media picked up the story: ultimately, Smokey, the bear cub, ended up at the National Zoo, with Smokey the Bear etched into the American public’s mind. (For his 40th Birthday, the US Postal Service issued a stamp.)

The Forest Service used the posters and stories of bears to highlight the role humans play in starting wildfires. The educational campaign urges awareness and caution. The goal of reducing human-caused wildfires has never changed, but our understanding of forests has changed over time.

The shift from forest fires to wildfires, allowed the campaign to include grasslands and planned burns needed for sustainable forests. Scientists now understand forest ecology better: a large crown fire, creates a scar, destroys all vegetation and changes the soil chemistry. In contrast, smaller fires clear dead trees, understory fuel and create the conditions where trees (which grow more slowly than shrubs) thrive. Thus, small fires are necessary and beneficial, with a human focus on management of the risks.

Today’s Understanding of Wildfires: Wildland Urban Interface

Today, we know that almost all wildfires start in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Some wildfires start in remote locations due to lightening, but most of the wildfires that cause meaningful damage occur as the result of human activity in areas near structures, the WUI.

Thus, Smokey’s message has been proven correct. More than 85% of wildfires are started by humans in the wilderness area, by campfires, cars and trucks, electrical lines, cigarettes, and so on.

Most wildfire risk models focus on the proximity of buildings to a WUI, but there are many more factors that need to be considered. Proximity is secondary to type of vegetation. Similarly, while the higher the building density the higher the potential insurable loss value, but it is not intuitive that higher density actually reduces the risk of property damage.

Numerous academic papers have been published on this over the past few years, but this is where a picture really is worth 1,000 words:

In the left, you have the highest risk neighborhood type. Low density housing, with close proximity to a WUI and an “intermix” of vegetation. The trees and shrubs near the homes are considered, by the municipality, to be the responsibility of the homeowners.

Since everything within a several mile radius of your property can influence embers and wind, the potential fire impacts to YOUR home from wildfire go well beyond your property line. You can see how this diffused responsibility is different from the neighborhood shown in the picture on the right.

With a sharply defined border, a Wildland Urban Interface (as opposed to Intermix), there is always an entity, usually a government department or agency, with responsibility for managing the fire risk.

Smokey speaks to both types of locations about risk, but Athena’s Voice of the Acre®, quantifies the difference in the land’s ability to host wildfire. This contemporary knowledge is based on geospatial computational power which wasn’t available even a decade ago, much less 80 years ago.

Athena, using many public databases, academic research on wildfires and machine learning, has found significant, albeit subtle, differences in wildfire risk. While embers cause 60% of home destruction during a wildfire, we can model the potential fire intensity, vegetation type and their combined ability for the fire to create its own wind, a year in advance. These factors can influence how embers move to start new fires.

Using details from a Clark County Washington analysis: In high risk, WUI intermix areas, the total acreage involved with fires was 4.80%. In otherwise identical areas with interface, the total acreage involved with fires was 3.18%. If you are interested in more detail, we encourage you to dive into the numbers we shared in this article:

Embers are the number one cause of damage, loss and expansion during a wildfire. Research has shown that over 60% of homes located in or near the wildland urban interface are ignited from embers landing on flammable roof debris or other nearby flammable objects, igniting the home. So home hardening is still a major factor in protecting your home.

Next year, August 9, 2024, will be Smokey’s 80th Birthday. He will still be talking about home hardening and caution around campfires, but perhaps he will also be listening to the Voice of the Acre®.

Athena Intelligence is a synthetic data vendor, to the insurance, utility and finance industries. The earth’s essential data is refined to make it easy for enterprises to use environmental information for future contracts, proprietary business decisions and risk management.



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