On August 9, 2021, Resource Advisor and Wildlife Biologist Sarah Bullock was heading to the Antelope Fire Incident Command Post when she encountered a young bear cub hugging tightly to the base of a tree in the Antelope Creek area. After ensuring that an adult bear was not in the vicinity, she carefully observed the cub and reasoned that he likely became orphaned or abandoned during the fire. After contacting forest authorities and reporting the sighting, she realized the significance of the date of her discovery.
In 1944, in the midst of World War II, the U.S. Forest Service needed a symbol to rally Americans to support forest fire prevention on the home front. On August 9, 1944, Smokey Bear first appeared in a campaign poster depicting a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire.
The real-life Smokey Bear was not discovered until 1950 in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. After surviving a burnover, firefighters found the badly burned bear cub clinging to the top of a charred tree. The cub was rescued, treated, and lived on to become the living embodiment of the fire prevention campaign until his death in 1976.
After Bullock’s reported sighting, forest supervisors contacted Iric Burden, Liaison Officer for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team 4. Burden, who has an extensive background in both wildlife biology and rehabilitation, was the right man for the job. He quickly enlisted the help of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist, Axel Hunnicutt.
Hunnicutt responded the following day, accompanied by Sarah Bullock who originally reported the cub sighting. The bear cub was quickly located, tranquilized, and recovered by the biologists. Weighing in at just 16 pounds, the bear cub was checked for injuries, which included second and third degree burns to his paws and nose.
The next step in the young bear’s journey was the Gold Country Wildlife Rescue in Auburn, California. This organization treats injured or orphaned wildlife, often discovered during wildfires, with the ultimate goal of reintroduction into the wild whenever possible.
On Wednesday, August 11, professionals from the State Fish and Game agency, along with specially trained wildlife volunteers from Gold Country Wildlife Rescue, began a relay to transport the bear cub. The first leg of his trip began in Mt. Shasta at the home of his rescuer, Axel Hunnicutt. Several drivers collectively traveled over 200 miles to transport the orphaned cub to his temporary home at the wildlife rescue facility.
Veterinarians from University of California-Davis have already begun treatment of the bear cub’s burns and have reported that he is eating well and taking fluids on his own, which the doctors consider a positive sign for a full recovery. These veterinarians recently treated a young bobcat from the nearby Lava Fire and remain available to receive additional animal patients from any fires in the area.
Just as fighting a wildfire takes a concerted effort from multiple crews, jurisdictions, municipalities, government agencies, and private cooperators, the same applied in the rescue of this bear cub. As Smokey Bear turns 77 years old, it appears he is receiving his birthday wish with the rescue of another beloved forest creature. While it may take a village to put out a fire or rescue an animal, it all begins with the actions of a single good-hearted person. Smokey’s lament continues, “Remember, only YOU…”