- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

‘Only you can prevent forest fires” has been the battle cry of a furry ranger for 59 years as he has helped people remember the danger flames pose in the tree-filled areas that cover more than a third of the planet. The Smokey Bear character, which was created in 1944, got a real-life counterpart in the 1950s. A black bear that was injured in a forest fire quickly became the mascot of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

Considering that 7 million acres of lush land was destroyed by fire in 2002 alone, his mission has continued to be important. His work has spread to the Internet to remind as many youngsters as possible to be careful in the outdoors and remind their parents of the catastrophes that can be created by carelessly dropping a cigarette or not completely extinguishing a campfire.

SMOKEY KIDS

Site address: www.smokeybear.com/kids/default.asp

Creator: New York City-based Ruder Finn Interactive, a division of Ruder Finn Inc., created and administers the current Smokeybear.com site. The U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters are sponsors, with the Ad Council acting as the central coordinating agency of the entire Wildfire Prevention campaign.

Creator quotable: “The New Smokey Bear site proved a challenge to Ruder Finn,” says Brad McCormick, senior producer in Ruder Finn’s Interactive Group. “Smokeybear.com had always been geared toward children, but that was to change. The Ad Council wanted to change the campaign’s main target market to adults, as research showed it was adults who caused the most wildfires. At the same time, the Ad Council didn’t want to reflect the traditional target market, children. To compound the problem, it was decided that the site should capitalize on the nostalgic aspect of the Smokey Bear character.

“RF essentially created three Web sites within the larger Smokeybear.com brand: Smokey Kids, Only You … and Smokey’s Vault. The response we have received, from both the sponsors and public, has indicated that we accomplished this task quite well.”

Word from the Webwise: Geared toward children in middle school and younger, the site highlights its four sections — In the Forest, Bear Facts, Campfire Games and Smokey Mail — on the front page while Smokey, with shovel in hand, beckons visitors to look around.

The opening screen also offers one-click access to Smokey’s latest commercial, which pays a cartoon tribute to groups such as Boys 2 Men and ‘N Sync while reminding children not to play with matches or fire.

As visitors wander In the Forest, they are accompanied by a dancing mountain lion while they learn about the uses of trees and fighting forest fires. Visitors also can take part in a “storymaker” by answering 27 questions, which are used in a personalized tale about a ranger saving the day — in my case, he put out a blaze with Pepsi One and a pizza.

The most interesting section, Campfire Games, gives children a list of campfire rules and five challenges to conquer. The simplistic video games range from a Frogger-like exercise in which a ranger must cross a river filled with dangerous animals to put out a fire to a mouse being controlled as he walks around and extinguishes flames with a pail of water and shovel, to children taking on the role of smoke jumper as they land in a forest-fire zone and dig pits to starve the flames.

Smokey Bear himself hosts Bear Facts, which does exactly what its moniker promises, provides a quick history of Smokey and a quicker education on the habits of the grizzly and black bears. Finally, Smokey Mail gives visitors a chance to sign up for and receive an e-mail message from the icon.

Ease of use: I would have appreciated more information for the kiddies to use in a school project, clearly explaining the dangers of forest fires and how wildlife is affected. Overall, visitors will need Windows Media or Quicktime player to view the commercials and Macromedia’s Flash Player 6 plug-in for the challenges. Macintosh users may find life a bit tricky when trying to enjoy some of the games.

Don’t miss: Parents can sneak over to Smokey’s Vault for a multimedia history of the famous bear. Accessed through a text link at the bottom of every page, the area offers 14 vintage commercials; audio snippets of public-service announcements from the 1950s and 1960s as Smokey talks to some celebrities, including Bing Crosby; and some great pictures of memorabilia such as comic books, Junior Forest Ranger cards and stamps.

Family activity: Besides taking all that is learned from the site and applying it to a real-life camping trip, the clan can print out 41 line-art pictures of Smokey and the gang in action, with a selection of different frames, to color away from the computer.

Cyber-sitter synopsis: The lack of content will leave younger children just playing the games and moving on quickly, while those truly interested in forest fires will move to the Only You Web site, which is more oriented to high school students, to learn about the science of wildfires and the techniques used to fight them. (It’s found through a link at the bottom of every Smokey Kids page)

Overall grade: B

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it’s accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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