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.