A couple of weekends ago I visited Capitan, New Mexico with my dad. Capitan is the birthplace and burial site of the world’s most well-known bear.
On May 4, 1950, sparks escaped a cabin cookstove and started the Los Tablos blaze in New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest. On May 6, a second fire, known as the Capitan Gap fire started in the same general area. Together these fires destroyed 17,000 acres of forest and grasslands.
On May 9, a fire crew brought a badly singed bear cub back to their camp. They had found the frightened cub clinging to the side of a burnt pine tree. Smokey was flown by Game Warden Ray Bell to a veterinary hospital in Santa Fe. Upon Smokey’s recovery in Santa Fe, the Forest Service flew him to the National Zoo in Washington, DC.
Smokey retired from the forest service on May 2, 1975. He was 25 years old; that’s 70 years old in human years, which in those days was the mandatory retirement age for all Federal employees. Smokey was the first bear to become a full-fledged member of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.
Upon his death in 1976, Smokey’s body was returned to New Mexico. He now rests in peace, buried in the village of Capitan and in the shadow of the mountains where it all began.
The boulder that marks his grave was brought down from the forest where he was found.
To this day, Smokey Bear lives in the hearts of children (and in mine). He is a symbol of pride to the people of New Mexico, and his name is synonymous with forest fire prevention worldwide.