For the last seven or so years, motorists passing through Broad River on N.C. 9 have come know the 6-foot-tall Smokey Bear, shovel in hand, drawing attention to the day’s fire conditions.
At some point between 7 p.m. Dec. 29 and 8 a.m. Dec. 30, the thick metal bear was taken, only to make its way back home in time to celebrate the new year.
Smokey Bear, created in 1944 as a part of the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign, remains the longest-running public service advertising campaign in the history of the country, according to the wildfire prevention website smokeybear.com. “Only you can prevent forest fires,” the character’s well-known catchphrase, serves as a reminder to handle fire responsibly.
The sign, which stands at the intersection of N.C. 9 and Broad River VFD Road, became even more relevant in November 2016 when the Party Rock Fire burned more than 7,000 acres nearby.
About 2010, the Broad River Volunteer Fire Department’s auxiliary group raised some $1,500 to purchase and erect the sign. Firefighters showing up for their shifts Dec. 30 noticed it was no longer there, according to chief Brent Hayner.
“It was bolted to some upright locust posts and held in place by brackets,” he said. “Whoever took it cut the screws to get it.”
The department reported the missing sign to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department and then posted a $250 reward on the fire department's Facebook page. Contributions that day from community members increased the reward to $1,000.
More than 20 miles away on New Year's Eve day, Sarah Thomas in Riceville was heading out for a hike at the Shope Creek Trailhead.
“I saw, of all things, Smokey the Bear just leaning up against a tree,” Thomas, vice president of finance and development at Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth and Families, said. “I thought maybe the forest service planned to give him a more permanent installation. But I definitely thought it was odd since that’s not a heavily trafficked area.”
Later that evening, as ice began to coat Western North Carolina, Thomas browsed social media for updates on road conditions.
“I saw a story about a Smokey the Bear sign going missing from Broad River,” she said. “So I called and left a message with the fire department and messaged them on Facebook.”
With ice accumulating on the roads, the department was busy Dec. 31, but Riceville Volunteer Fire & Rescue recovered the sign Jan. 1, Hayner said.
“We were able to go over there and get it back later that day,” he said. “We’re still missing the ‘fire danger’ sign that goes with it, but I suspect that’s been tossed over a bank somewhere by now.”
The Smokey sign, however, was undamaged, the chief said.
“I personally think it was probably a college prank or something,” Hayner said. “Or someone just stole it, but it ended up getting so much media attention and shared so much on Facebook that they thought the best option was to drop it off somewhere.”
With no arrest made in the theft, the reward will remain unclaimed. Thomas, who said finding the sign was one of the highlights of her holiday season, was simply happy to help.
“I’m so glad that sequence of events played out so I could be a part of getting Smokey home,” she said.
The department plans to mount the sign again in the next week or two, Hayner said.
“There’s no way we can stop someone from stealing the sign if they really want to,” he said. “But we’re trying to figure out another way we can deter someone from doing it again.”