History Book: Fighting forest fires, and The Baltic Way


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, August 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD Radio History Book. 

Today, an art heist of two famous paintings in Oslo, Norway. 

Plus, a political protest in the former USSR that stretched across three Baltic States.

EICHER: But first, 75 years ago this month, the start of an ad campaign designed to fight forest fires.

Here’s Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: During World War II, many of our nation’s firefighters were serving in the armed forces—meaning there were fewer men available to control fires back home. So the U.S. Forest Service introduced a series of colorful posters promoting fire prevention

The most recognizable features an erect bear in blue jeans and a brimmed hat pouring water on a campfire. Below, the caption reads: “Smokey says – Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!” 

Three years later, the Ad Council edited the slogan to something a bit more memorable: 

CLIP: Remember only you can prevent forest fires!

In 1950, the fictional character came to life when firefighters rescued a bear cub during the Capitan Gap fire in New Mexico. Crews originally named him “Hotfoot Teddy” but later changed it to “Smokey,” after the icon.

CLIP: Smokey the Bear, my friend and yours. But he needs our help, Smokey does, to keep our forest green and growing.

Smokey Bear and the forest fire prevention campaign is one of the Ad Council’s most successful projects. In fact, some scientists argue it’s been too successful. Occasional smaller fires are actually beneficial for forests: It’s a way for the ecological system to purge deadfall and unhealthy plants and trees. But the 75 year campaign headed by the lovable bear has focused so strongly on prevention, some argue it’s led to forests full of combustible fuel. Once started, those fires rage hotter and longer, destroying forests instead of strengthening them. 

But others counter that the message of campfire safety and proper extinction means the forests will be around for generations to come because of the popular character.

SONG: SMOKEY THE BEAR [LYRIC] – That’s why they call him Smokey, that’s how he got his name…

August 23rd, 1989: 

ABC NEWS CLIP: Good evening. We begin today with an anniversary whose commemoration makes the Soviet Union very uneasy. On this date in 1939, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin carved up Eastern Europe. Today, 2 million residents of the Baltic States linked hands to protest, not only what happened 50 years ago, but to send a message of defiance to Moscow today. 

ABC news anchor Carol Simpson. 

CLIP: [The Baltic Way footage]

In previous years, local officials forcefully shut down similar “Black Ribbon Day” protests marking Hitler and Stalin’s secret agreement. But in 1989, law enforcement did not intervene. 

Organizers mapped out the route ahead of time through specific towns and villages to make sure the human chain would stretch on uninterrupted. Protesters tuned in to the radio to coordinate when to link arms. From Estonia it wove its way through Latvia to Lithuania for 420 miles. 

Three days after the protest, the Central Committee of the Communist Party released a statement with a stern warning against the growing “nationalist, extremist groups.” But by-in-large, the international community supported the Baltic States. In December, Mikhail Gorbachev’s government condemned the 1939 agreement. And a few months later, the first free elections took place in the Baltic states. 

BUSH: The United States is also prepared to do whatever it can to assist in the completion of the current process to making Baltic independence a factual reality.

By the end of 1991, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had all gained independence. Today the protest is known as: “The Baltic Way”

SONG: WAKE UP BALTIC STATES

And finally…August 22nd, 2004. Audio here from Chicago’s ABC News, Channel 7. 

ABC NEWS CLIP: Authorities say two or three armed and masked men burst into the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, in broad daylight and took the paintings as visitors watched…

The men walked out with two Edvard Munch paintings: “Madonna” and his most iconographic work: “The Scream.” The thieves were almost stereotypical henchmen. Gruff and clumsy, even dropping one of the paintings before tossing it into the back of a van. 

It took authorities just over two years to find and retrieve the paintings. They were both damaged, but not beyond repair. Both are back on display.

CLIP: I start the bidding here at $40 million…

But the publicity surrounding the theft certainly didn’t hurt businessman Petter Olsen, who owned one of four originals of “The Scream.” Olsen sold his version in 2012 for a record-breaking $120 million.

That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book, I’m Paul Butler.


(Photo/Smokey Bear)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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