Ray Kresek says the origins of what he calls the world’s largest Smokey Bear collection – which exists in a crowded but neatly arranged room in the basement of his home on the far North Side of Spokane – can be traced back to 1950.
Smokey, who debuted in a 1944 ad campaign, was just 6 years old at the time, and Kresek was a 12-year-old in Oroville, Washington, whose teacher found matches in his pocket.
Asked why he had them, Kresek told the truth: The matches were so he and a friend could build a fire to cook hot dogs while building a trail for the U.S. Forest Service. But his teacher didn’t believe him and sent Kresek home to write a letter, explaining again why he really had the matches.
When his mother read what he wrote, she told him to send a copy to the Forest Service. In response, he says, he received a poster of Smokey Bear holding Bambi, who appeared in the first nationwide wildfire-prevention campaign. Much to his chagrin, that original poster is long gone. But on Thursday afternoon – the day before Smokey’s 75th birthday – Kresek pointed to a metal reproduction hanging on the wall’s wood paneling.
It’s one of thousands of Smokey Bear items in his collection, including everything from pencils to posters to Frisbees to dolls.
Perhaps Kresek’s most prized piece of Smokey memorabilia is one of the 14 original Smokey Bear suits, which stands safely behind a window pane in his basement shrine.
Like seemingly everything else in his collection, it’s not so much the object as the story behind the suit that Kresek relishes. In this case, that story includes references to Rudy Wendelin, the most well-known Smokey artist; to the suit’s fabric, which Wendelin found on an earlier Smokey figurine, which Kresek of course also has on display; to the 1952 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, where the suits were debuted; and to the Washington Department of Natural Resources compound in Olympia where Kresek found the suit moldering.
For Guy Gifford, fire prevention manager for DNR’s northeast region, it is Kresek’s bottomless well of similar stories that makes the collection so rich.
“I get a different story every time, with a different piece,” Gifford said Thursday.
Gifford is an enthusiastic supporter of Kresek’s extensive collection of fire-prevention-related artifacts, which includes not only a room packed with Smokey Bear stuff but also a backyard with an actual fire lookout and a garage-sized fire guard station that houses a firetruck as well as hundreds of other objects.
Together, the items comprise Kresek’s private, nonprofit Fire Lookout Museum, which spans his yard and his basement.
For now, the museum is open to the public by appointment. But eventually – “When I can’t deal with it any longer” – the 82-year-old plans to pass it all on to the Stevens County Historical Society in Colville.
Kresek said he has amassed the collection in a series of “strange, strange ways.”
“When you start collecting,” he said, “things just drop in your lap.”
While the items of his massive collection clearly please the collector in Kresek, he says what’s more important than the countless Smokey reproductions is the message the iconic figure conveys: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
That message is especially resonant when you look at data showing that of the more than 500 fires in northeast Washington last year, 459 were human-caused, while just 75 were sparked by lightning. Or when you step outside on a day like Thursday and breathe the smoke in the air.
Kresek said Smokey was part of “the most successful advertising campaign in the United States” and was “as well known as Santa Claus” when he was a kid.
While Smokey is somewhat less recognizable now, Kresek said the enduring resonance of his fire-prevention message is on the rebound after a period when foresters took a less active approach to combating wildfires.
“I would say he’s stronger than he was at 50, because there’s so many people who live in the woods,” Kresek said. “It’s their houses at risk, not just trees.”
Of all the Smokey-related objects he has, there’s one that stands out for being earned rather than acquired: a 2011 Silver Smokey Bear Award.
“I don’t know what I did to earn that Smokey,” Kresek said of the trophy. “But it’s my Oscar.”
That prompted Gifford to speak up.
“I know what he did to earn it,” Gifford said, explaining that the award is a rarely given honor for outstanding fire prevention efforts. “I’m the one who nominated him.”
On Saturday, Kresek, Gifford and a contingent of other fire-prevention professionals will gather at Kresek’s home/museum to celebrate Smokey’s 75th birthday, which is today.
The plan, as it was in 1950, is to light a fire and grill some hot dogs.
While Kresek’s 75th celebration is private, visit http://www.firelookouts.com/museum.html or call (509) 466-9171 to make an appointment to visit the Fire Lookout Museum. The Forest Service will host two public birthday celebrations today in Stevens County. The first will take place from 10 a.m. to noon at the Forest Headquarters, 765 S. Main St., in Colville. The second will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Chewelah Farmers Market in Chewelah City Park.