By Lacey Johnson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Smokey Bear, a symbol for generations of Americans of the dangers of forest fires and the star of the longest-running public service ad campaign in U.S. history, celebrated his 70th birthday on Friday.
The importance of Smokey Bear, famed for his motto "only you can prevent forest fires," is greater than ever today because of longer and more intense wildfire seasons, U.S. Forest Service chief Thomas Tidwell told a birthday celebration.
"It’s more important than ever for us to find every way possible to reduce the number of accidental fires that occur on our landscape every year,” he told about 100 people during a celebration at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The birthday party, held a day early, included cupcakes and ice cream, and the singing of "Happy Birthday" to an actor dressed in a Smokey Bear costume.
The Forest Service unveiled Smokey Bear as a symbol for fire prevention on Aug. 9, 1944. Tidwell said the country averaged about 160,000 wildfires annually in 1944, compared with 60,000 today, a decline he attributes to the Smokey Bear campaign.
Up to 90 percent of U.S. wildfires are caused by humans, according to the National Park Service.
Tidwell said today’s wildfires tend to be larger due to drier, hotter weather. With more people living near forested areas, Smokey’s message is more relevant than ever, he said.
Ninety-six percent of U.S. adults recognize Smokey Bear and 70 percent can recall his tagline, according to research by the Ad Council. The non-profit partnered with the Forest Service and National Association of State Foresters to create Smokey Bear.
“He’s right up there with Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus,” said Ad Council President Peggy Conlon.
The fire prevention campaign has expanded into social media. Smokey Bear has 24,000 Twitter followers, 300,000 Facebook fans and more than 1.8 million views on YouTube, she said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Jim Loney)