Despite some dreary cloud cover and light rain showers, Smokey Bear took to the sky over Sentinel High School and the Western Montana Fair on Friday morning to celebrate his 75th birthday.
While he typically speaks truth about the importance of human-caused forest fire prevention, this Smokey was full of hot air, and a good bit larger than most portrayals of the U.S. Forest Service’s most well-known mascot.
The balloon version of Smokey, which stands 97 feet tall when inflated, hails from New Mexico, just like the real-life Smokey black bear cub who was rescued from a forest fire in 1950. The balloon didn't get much air time in Missoula, but it did give a few low tethered rides.
Andi Colson, of the Forest Service’s Missoula Ranger District, organized the event in conjunction with the fire prevention booth at the fair, and with the help of other local forest management organizations including the Bureau of Land Management, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Missoula County Fire Protection Association.
“I heard through the grapevine that the Smokey hot air balloon existed,” Colson said. “And I wondered if he might be available for his 75th birthday.”
She said she was surprised to see he had not been reserved when she looked into it about a year ago, though he had been scheduled to be in Upstate New York a week before his birthday. While that made the logistics look iffy, the reservation in New York was canceled and Smokey was able to make it to the fair.
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Ruby Stone, 7, and her little brother Copper, 3, were excited to see a hot air balloon up close for the first time, though the costumed Smokey mascot was a little overwhelming, sending them running back to their dad’s side.
“It’s bigger than I expected,” Ruby said. Copper said he was excited to see the animals at the fair.
The balloon is owned by the nonprofit Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon, which has operated the balloon since 1993. However, the original balloon snagged on a radio tower at the 2003 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, leaving the pilot and two children on board to climb down the 600-foot tower. Luckily, everyone was OK, but Smokey did not survive.
The Smokey balloon that came to Missoula was made in 2005 to replace the one damaged in the snag.
While "Big Smokey," as its owners call the hot air balloon, won't be sticking around for the rest of the fair, a 20-foot-tall inflatable Smokey will be at the fire prevention booth for the rest of the weekend.
And to clear the air, Smokey Bear is the mascot's official name, not Smokey the Bear, Colson stressed.
"I will hear about it if he is referred to as Smokey the Bear."