“Don’t forget your farewell party is tonight.  We’ve got big plans.”

“Can’t wait.  It will be fun to have one more last hurrah.”

So I met with my friends and colleague from the Truckee Ranger District, where I’d spent the last six months working.  Firefighters, foresters, trail workers, all gathered to wish me well on my move to Oregon.

“And finally, we have one last present for you.”

They handed me something squishy and bulky wrapped in bright red paper.  I ripped the paper off and immediately grinned.

“We couldn’t let you leave without taking Smokey with you!”

“I will cherish him forever and keep him nearby wherever I go!”

It’s always emotional when  you leave a job to move on to bigger and better things.  One of the traditions that goes along with moving on is the big farewell party.

While working with the Park Service, I used to get Arrowhead plaques or replica items significant to the park.  For those of you unfamiliar with the NPS uniform, the Arrowhead is the patch worn on the sleeve.  It has mountains, snow and a bison, each representing what the parks protect.  When a person retires or leaves to take a new job, an Arrowhead carved out of wood and painted is given to them.  Most of their colleagues sign the back, wishing them well for the next chapter.

But in the Forest Service, there is no symbol more iconic than Smokey Bear.  While working for the Forest Service, we sold items from our bookstore at the ranger station.  Smokeys of all sizes adorned the shelves from little tiny ones to one a foot high (like mine).  The iconic hat topping his fuzzy head, and of course the shovel held tightly in his paw.

This year is Smokey’s Big Birthday this year — he is officially 75 years old.

Born in 1944, he was the creation of the Forest Service and the Ad Council.  A fictional bear would be the symbol reminding the public to put out fires correctly.  The slogan we all know so well, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” didn’t come about until three years later.  So much more catchy than “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.”

In 1950, a real life bear cub took on Smokey’s persona.  Caught in a tree during a forest fire, he got rescued by firefighters.  Inspired by his perseverance and courage, they named him Smokey. Smokey got moved to the National Zoo in Washington to live out his days until he passed away in 1976.

Strangely, I’ve always thought his true name Smokey the Bear.  Apparently, “the” was only added as part of a jingle to make the song sound better, but his real name is Smokey Bear.

My Smokey Bear stuffed animal has accompanied all over the country, keeping me company in many states.  He occupies his trusty spot in my den, looking over me at our home in Nederland.

I like to think Smokey even relates to my current job.  By helping home owners learn how to mitigate their houses against wildfires, I carry Smokey’s message on for future generations.