WILDWOOD, MO/June 16, 2017 (STL.News) – A missing icon recognizable to generations of Americans has been restored to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Rockwoods Reservation in Wildwood.
Smokey Bear is back, thanks to a partnership between MDC and the Metro West Fire Protection District of St. Louis County.
For years, passersby travelling on Route 109 past Rockwoods Reservation grew accustomed to seeing America’s favorite wildfire-awareness “spokes bear” standing sentinel near the entrance to the conservation area. A sign accompanying the wooden likeness of Smokey Bear would inform motorists of the current fire danger in the area.
But in August 2015, Smokey Bear was stolen from his post along Route 109 in an apparent act of vandalism. Part of the mascot turned up about a week later in a local junkyard, but there was not enough left to put back up.
According to MDC Forestry District Supervisor Gus Raeker, the facility received a number of calls expressing concern over the disappearance of the local icon.
“There was definitely a lot of interest in maintaining that tradition in the area,” Raeker said.
The old Smokey figure was made of simple plywood, but replacing it with a sturdier, more vandal-resistant version would be costly. Fortunately, the Metro West Fire Protection District came to the rescue. The district partnered with MDC to help replace the popular mascot because they believed Smokey’s wildfire prevention message was a common goal.
“As fire danger elevates, we want to make sure residents are more fire aware and do things like make sure the area around their home is cleared of fire hazards,” said Metro West Fire District Public Information Officer Mike Thiemann.
Metro West Fire Protection joined forces with Metro West Firefighters Community Outreach, an employee organization, to come up together with half the funds needed to replace Smokey. MDC contributed the other half and the two agencies were able to bring the bear back . . . and better than ever.
The new Smokey Bear and fire danger awareness sign are made out of metal and set in concrete. While Raeker acknowledges that nothing may be completely vandal-proof, he has a lot more confidence in the replacement.
“Our new sign is much more vandal-resistant and should hold up a whole lot better,” he said.
MDC completed installation of the new Smokey Bear and sign at the beginning of June. Raeker acknowledged the partnership with Metro West made the project a lot more doable for both organizations.
So what’s so important about a Smokey Bear mascot and a fire danger sign?
Raeker pointed out that there are several thousand acres of public forest in and around Rockwoods Reservation, along with many homes tucked into private wooded lots for which Wildwood is known.
“We utilize Smokey and the fire danger sign to communicate when folks need to be particularly careful with fire,” Raeker said.
“Smokey is one of those standard community messages people are used to seeing, and people do pay attention to it, especially in the Wildwood area. So that’s why it was important to us,” added Thiemann.
The Smokey Bear campaign, originally launched in 1944, has proven to be one of the most successful public relations efforts of all time. According to the Ad Council, 95% of adults and 77% of children in the United States recognize Smokey Bear and his message.
“Smokey provides a good message and it really resonates with folks,” Raeker said.