Smokey Bear Persuasion and Wildfire Prevention Messaging

Recently, my student Daphne described taking a hike last month, as the Bobcat Fire burned 50 miles away within the Angeles National Forest.  As she made her way down the hiking trail, she encountered a small lizard covered in ash, demonstrating just how far the smoke and ash had traveled.  One of the largest fires in Los Angeles County to date, the Bobcat Fire burned 115,796 acres from September 6 to November 2 of this year.  This is just one of 9,117 fire incidents that have occurred in California in 2020.

Outside the San Francisquito Fire Station, Angeles National Forest (November 8, 2020).  Smokey Bear can be seen throughout the country promoting the National Fire Danger Rating System.

Much of our school fall semester has occurred with a backdrop of smoky haze and unhealthy air quality.  Since my 12th graders had been working on improving calls to action as they formulate arguments, I decided that the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign would be a timely case study focus.  I was curious about what my students perceived to be the major causes of unplanned human-caused wildfires and how their ideas squared with the media messages we receive about their rapid spread.  Given what they uncovered about wildfire media coverage in 2020, I asked them to update Smokey Bear’s 76-year-old ad campaign with a specific call to action.  In this post, I’ll explain the steps we took to deepen our knowledge of fire ecology and shape a message to inform an audience:

  • Study the evolution of the Smokey Bear ad campaign
  • Use “Hexagonal Thinking” to develop calls to action
  • Learn about the role of invasive plants in rapid wildfire spread
  • Narrate our calls to action via recorded slides on Flipgrid

#1 Study Smokey Bear ads

 1944 Debut Poster illustrated by Albert Staehle.   Image via Public Domain

My students were surprised to learn that Disney authorized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program (CFFP) to use Bambi on a successful poster campaign in 1944, giving credence to the idea that using an animal as a fire prevention symbol could work.  Since Bambi’s image was only on loan for a year, the Forest Service needed to find an animal that would belong exclusively to the CFFP.  The first Smokey Bear poster, displaying an illustrated bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire, garnered quick popularity and soon the now ubiquitous image of Smokey began appearing on wildfire prevention materials.

I asked my students to study an online archive of fire prevention posters, which gives a helpful sense of how the Smokey Bear posters have changed over time.  We made a Jamboard of our noticings, observing how the ad campaign frequently relied on the use of pathos and Smokey’s partnership with other media icons:

Last year, the campaign updated Smokey Bear for the digital age with an animated emoji, in honor of the campaign’s 75th birthday.  Stephen Colbert is one of the celebrities providing a voiceover to the animation, as seen in this 30 second spot: Smokey Bear Campaign: Seventy-Five Years Act 1(featuring Stephen Colbert).

My students speculated that it was not only the sight of a lovable, anthropomorphized bear that had perpetuated the campaign’s success – the messaging of the ads usually engaged the “why” of wildfire prevention.  The things we wish to protect – Mother Nature, vulnerable species, the places where we have hiked and camped with our loved ones – provoke the urge to more responsibly handle potential sources of fire fuel.  Outlining the prevention “hows” while reminding viewers of their “why” supported Smokey’s memorable catchphrase: “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.”

# 2 Use “Hexagonal Thinking” to develop calls to action

In groups, my students had noted the causes of wildfire identified through the posters’ visual and verbal rhetoric.  I asked them to do a write-up, comparing what the Smokey Bear campaign says about wildfire prevention with what other media sources have reported.  They pored over recent reporting on the California wildfire season, as well as articles that suggested the shortcomings of the Smokey Bear campaign:

Smokey Bear Is 75. Is It Time For Him To Retire? (huffpost.com)

Is Smokey Bear Worsening Global Warming? (sciencemag.org)

What Smokey the Bear didn’t know about invasive species (envirobites.org)

During class, we used the “hexagonal thinking” strategy to contemplate connections between the culprits frequently named as the cause of wildfire.  We linked each cause that Smokey Bear explicitly brought up to a central hexagon.  The visual shows how the role of invasive grasses was acknowledged by other media sources, uncovering a major culprit not mentioned in the Smokey Bear ads: invasive, non-native plants.

As my student studied the hexagons, they brought up important questions based on their research on recent wildfire media coverage:

  • Why do many online sources talk about wildfire causes without talking about why these fires spread so quickly?
  • Why is fire so often described as “good” or “bad” when fire is a natural process, playing a key role in many forest ecosystems?
  • Why do people name “dry vegetation” as a wildfire cause without differentiating between the role of native plants versus non-native plants in wildfire spread?
  • Why do some media voices criticize Smokey Bear when the campaign’s own website describes the importance of prescribed burns in restoring health to ecosystems that depend on fire?

#3 Learn about the role of invasive plants in rapid wildfire spread

The questions my students brought up were important ones.  They followed them up with comments about the provocative nature of “clickbait” titles and observations about our own fire ecology ignorance – we had never thought about the difference between how a fire spreads through chaparral versus a conifer forest, for example.  We decided to consult with TreePeople, a local organization doing the important work of habitat restoration in Angeles National Forest.  Since my student’s task was to update the campaign with a specific call to action, we needed more information about gaps in the general public’s knowledge about the “fire fuel” potential of invasive plants.

TreePeople’s Angeles Restoration Senior Coordinator Alyssa Walker answered my students’ questions regarding the importance of invasive plant removal during chaparral restoration.

TreePeople currently has three planting sites in the Angeles National Forest.  The picture above shows a planting area that was covered by a sea of mustard, thistle, clover, and smilo grass two years ago – non-native plants that can act as “fire fuel” if a fire were to rip through this area.  Though my students and I had already used the iNaturalist app to find out where heavy concentrations of non-native plants had been identified, we wanted to find out more from people out in the field.  TreePeople is restoring a chaparral ecosystem in San Francisquito Canyon, an area devastated by the Copper Fire in 2002.  The loss of vegetation had worsened encroachment of invasive vegetation throughout the watershed and reduced the population of an endangered plant, Nevin’s barberry.  Learning which native plants TreePeople was planting in the area taught us about the importance of replacing invasive grasses with vegetation that can hold hot embers for a longer period.

#4 Narrating our calls to action via recorded slides on Flipgrid

The Flipgrid video option to record a voice-over for slides has been a wonderful way for me to hear more of my students’ voices during distance learning.  My students began to develop their call to action scripts and slide presentations, weaving iconic images of Smokey Bear with pictures of native plants that could ameliorate the chaparral slope conditions in the San Francisquito Canyon watershed.  In their narration, they explained why the Smokey Bear campaign was created in the first place and explained how organizations such as TreePeople help to restore fire-damaged areas by planting species suited to the local ecosystem, an important action that should be more widely practiced and discussed.

Coast Live Oak is known for being fire-resistant.  Here it is
planted in a gopher cage to protect its young roots.

Key lesson takeaways:

  • The Smokey Bear Ad Council campaign is a fascinating historical artifact, but it is not static – it has changed over time, acknowledging more causes of wildfire spread, and recognizing the importance of prescribed burns.
  • Developing our media literacy through this case study deepened our environmental literacy: teaching us why native plants are vitally important, but also teaching us the need for interdisciplinary understanding in environmental problem-solving.
  • Their calls to action were made credible by efforts to speak about fire in a more nuanced manner – acknowledging how prescribed burns can rid forests of debris and nurture soil while also explaining the relationship between wildfire and climate change (unusually warm, windy, and dry weather conditions)
  • My students felt that Smokey’s famous catchphrase “Only you can prevent forest fires” puts the onus of wildfire prevention on the individual.  The environmental stewardship demonstrated by organizations such as TreePeople models the importance of collaborative forest protection and stewardship.

-Xochitl

How could you use the Smokey Bear campaign as a case study in your classroom? What are ways we can deepen environmental literacy through rhetorical analysis?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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