Retired ranger wants residents to think about Smokey Bear and fire prevention.
After he fought wildfires with the Florida Forest Service for 38 years, Andy Lee’s passion for fire prevention hasn’t waned.
His favorite character?
Smokey Bear, of course.
The East County resident has decades of memorabilia to prove it, of the original character designed by the U.S. Forest Service in 1944 and later of the cub rescued from a wildfire in New Mexico in 1950, who became the Forest Service’s mascot for future fire prevention campaigns.
“Smokey Bear is an icon,” Lee said. “He is totally fire prevention.”
After starting his career in 1979 as a forest ranger, Lee, now 69, used to battle fires, often on a tractor. But he also did plenty of prevention education, which included him wearing Smokey costumes at events.
As a retiree, he has a different fire prevention strategy. From his home in Westwinds Village mobile home park, Lee crafts wooden Smokey Bear medallions, which he passes out at no charge to visitors at Jiggs Landing Preserve, where he’s a local fishing guide, or when he’s out in the community.
“I love to create,” Lee said. “I knew I wanted to make [Smokey Bear medallions] when I retired.”
That was two years ago.
The process is simple, but Lee relishes it. He buys narrow, 8-foot-long pieces of wood and cuts them into 2-inch blocks. With wire cutters, he clips the edges, so they are smooth and then pulls out a green or red ink pad and two stamps, one with the word “Smokey” and another with “Says help prevent wildfires.” He stamps “Smokey” on the bottom of each medallion’s front, and he uses both stamps on the back.
The Forest Service supplies him with a roll of 250 stickers of Smokey’s face, and Lee’s wife, Darlene, helps by cutting off the white border around Smokey’s head and then placing the image on the front of the medallion, above Smokey’s name.
He adds a clear epoxy to protect the finishes, drills holes through the sides and adds a 3-foot-long string to complete the necklace.
The medallions then are ready for distribution.
“The time is a ball,” Lee said, noting he can make about 100 of the medallions in just two days. “Fire prevention is big. There always will be wildfires.”
Lee said he keeps a stash of them in his pocket whenever he goes out.
“They get the point across,” Lee said. “The kids love the picture. I get excited to be able to pass these out. These things are all over the world now. It’s important to me, and it’s fun.”