It was a typical spring day in 1950 for a fire tower operator in New Mexico’s Capitan Mountains in Lincoln National Forest near Alamogordo. Then everything changed. He spotted smoke wafting above the treetops. He called the location into the closest ranger station. The first crew marched into a blazing wildfire racing along the ground propelled by those notorious New Mexico gusting winds with the air temperature in the mid-80s. More crews had to be called in to help. Forest rangers, crews from New Mexico and Texas and the New Mexico State Game Department geared up to gain control of the flames.
One of those New Mexico crews was the newly formed Snowballs from Taos Pueblo. This would be just their second call to action, the first being a wildfire on the Gila National Forest near Silver City the month before. The Capitan Gap Fire that broke on May 4, 1950, would come to be known as the event that rescued the real-life Smokey Bear. And it was the Snowballs who saved the cub’s life. History, however, has failed to point out that fact.
There were no phones at the pueblo in 1950 so serving as the “village crier,” the WarChief climbed to a high point and began yelling in Tiwa calling all available village firefighters to immediately gather in the Pueblo Plaza. Twenty-five volunteers boarded an old school bus and began an all-day journey southeast to the Lincoln National Forest.
It was at the start of their trip to the Capitan fire that the Taos Pueblo volunteer firefighters adopted the name “Snowballs.” According to a story related by team member Adolph Samora (then 76) in 2005 to Bureau of Indian Affairs Prevention Coordinator Val Christianson for publication in the BIA magazine Smoke Signals, crew member Del Reyna looked at the white, wide-brimmed hard hats worn by his crewmates and then at Taos Mountain crowned with snow and proclaimed, “We all look like a bunch of snowballs.” Everyone laughed. The name stuck.
The initial blaze in the forest was named the Los Tablos Fire, fed by 70-mile-per-hour winds that blew in sand from the southwest. It started when a cookstove overheated and spit sparks. By late morning on May 6, the Los Tablos Fire was under control after burning 1,000 acres. Fire personnel was beginning to demobilize. By early afternoon, the Snowballs were collecting their gear and personal belongings, thinking they would be heading home. Then a new alarm screamed through the base camp. Another wildfire had started upwind from their location — the Capitan Gap Fire.
A United States Army crew from Fort Bliss, the Snowballs, the Mescalero Apache Redhats and community crews from Zia and Santo Domingo pueblos — according to information told to Christianson by Samora and crewmate Paul Romero — were on hand to battle the new blaze that was searing through Douglas and white fir and quaking aspen 10,000 feet up. Elk, bighorn sheep and the American black bear were in harm’s way. The Fort Bliss crew was the first unit to tackle the fire. Two days later, strong winds pushed the flames straight at the crew, forcing them to take cover in a rockslide. They lay face down, pushing their faces into the crevices’ cooler, smokeless air. The fire rumbled over them, singeing hair and clothing. Remarkably, no one was seriously injured.
The Capitan Gap Fire destroyed 17,000 acres. It was also caused by humans.
When another Native American and Fort Bliss crew were coming down from fighting the fire, the Snowballs were on their way up for mop-up duty — the act of extinguishing or removing burning material near control lines, felling snags and trenching logs to prevent rolling after an area has burned in order to make a recent fire zone safe or to reduce residual smoke. Team member Romero recalled in an interview with Taos Pueblo writer and artist Jonathan Warm Day Coming that they were told, “There’s a big bear up there. Better be careful.”
Romero remembers the “warning” spoken as a joke. Apparently, a frightened, 5-pound cub had been spotted clinging to a charred tree. Other firefighters had tried to wrangle him, but with no success and a few scratches and bites. His hind legs and paws were badly burned. His mother was nowhere to be found.
Upon hearing the news of a little bear caught in the fire line, fresh eyes began searching for the small animal. The Snowballs, according to Romero, successfully secured the cub who had gotten down from the tree and was scampering atop glowing embers. A number of men had tried to grab the cub, but memories have faded about exactly which Snowball caught him.
A rancher among the local crew agreed to take the cub home. Soon after, New Mexico Department Game Warden Ray Bell — who had been in a plane flying over the wildfire — heard about the cub when he returned to the fire camp. He drove to the rancher’s home and put the cub on a plane to Santa Fe. Once there, veterinarian Dr. Ed Smith treated the cub’s burns, but it was Ruth Bell (Ray's wife) and daughter, Judy, who are credited for getting the little cub to eat and back on his feet.
News about “Hot Foot Teddy” — as he was first named by the firefighters — spread quickly throughout the state. It wasn’t long before the United Press and Associated Press aired his story coast to coast. The public expressed its concern about the little bear’s recovery.
Bell wrote to the chief of the Forest Service, offering to give the cub to the agency as long as he would be dedicated to a conservation and wildfire prevention publicity program. It was agreed to and the cub was transported to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.
The story of Smokey Bear, however, began well before the baby bear was discovered in the Capitan Gap Fire. In 1944, the image of a black bear was selected to be a forest defender and public educator, and he was named Smokey Bear. The first fire prevention campaign posters were created in 1943 and looked more like war propaganda than the Smokey images most of us are familiar with.
The real-life Smokey was given his own ZIP code because of the countless packages of honey and piles of letters he received. He remained at the zoo until his death in 1976. Smokey is buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan. He would’ve turned 75 years old this year.
“They were revered at the pueblo,” said Warm Day Coming, who remembers the crew when he was a boy. “They had a box in the middle of the pueblo where they stored their equipment. No one dared mess with it."
Only two of the original Snowballs team survive Samora and Romero. Both men were teenagers when they boarded that school bus with 23 other men from Taos Pueblo for the day-long trip to fight two disastrous fires. Samora was 18 and Romero was 16.
Reuben Romero retired from the Pueblo Forestry Office, told Patricia Chambers for the Taos News in 2008 that the Snowballs “spent 28 days fighting the fire at Capitan Gap with very little equipment or protections and brought honor to the tribe.”
The story of Smokey Bear’s rescue was repeated in publications, including the 1950s’ comic book, giving credit for the cub’s rescue to the Army troop, not the Snowballs. That blunder brings “tears to [Paul] Romero’s eyes,” said Warm Day Coming.
And while many websites about Smokey Bear still don’t give the Snowballs due credit for saving the beloved bear, the BIA did.
On July 9, 2008, at Taos Pueblo the BIA formally acknowledged the part played by the Snowballs in the real-life rescue of an injured, orphaned bear cub that became one of America’s best-loved icons.
What’s in a name
To dispel any confusion, Smokey Bear is his given name. Smokey the Bear came about because of a 1952 song by Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson. “The” was added to his name because the songwriters said it augmented the song’s rhythm.