Cinder Bear: Smokey’s Heir & Legacy

Cinder (Photo: Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation)
Cinder (Photo: Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation)

The Carlton Complex Fire

The worst wildfire in Washington State history struck the Methow Valley in the summer of 2014, part of what became known as the Carlton Complex fire. The terrifying rush of flames burned 300 homes and covered more than 250,000 acres before it was contained, more than ten days after it started.

From the ruins, a year-old black bear came hobbling out on her knees and elbows, her paws so badly burned that she couldn’t walk on them. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife rescued her, and gave her a name: Cinder.  They feared for her life; she was severely underweight (just 39 pounds!) and very badly injured.

Smokey The Bear: Another Rescue

Once upon a time, another black bear was rescued from a fire, a lonely cub who’d lost his mama and had burns on his paws and hind legs. The Captain Gap wildfire in 1950 was caused by an overheated cookstove and spread to encompass 17,000 acres of pristine national forest in New Mexico.  Firefighters, a rancher, and a New Mexico Ranger came together to save the little cub.

They named him Smokey, and he inspired a song and became the living symbol of our national wildfire campaign. Today, Smokey the Bear is synonymous with wildfire education and prevention, a name recognized by generations of Americans.  Smokey’s story does have a happy ending; with medical care, he recovered from his injuries. He was brought to the National Zoo, and cherished, pampered, and beloved by millions. But from that moment on, Smokey lost the chance to ever experience life as a wild bear.

Smokey Bear (Photo: United States Department of Agriculture)
Smokey Bear (Photo: United States Department of Agriculture)

Cinder, One Year Later

Today, Cinder is living out a different destiny.  We have learned a great deal about wildlife rehabilitation and release since the 1950s. A year of professional medical care turned Cinder into a healthy 125-pound adult bear, during which time staff was very careful not to let her bond with humans. She did bond with another black bear named Kaulana, becoming fast friends. Her paws and claws healed, and she learned to climb trees and romp with the best of bears. And now, she’s gone home, not to the well-intentioned confines of a zoo enclosure, but to the wild backwoods of Washington state.

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Cinder & Kaulana (Photo: Idaho Black Bear Rehabilitation)

Cinder’s old home is still recovering from the trauma of the great fires, but the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife picked out the perfect bear territory for these special friends.  Salmonberries hang heavy on the bushes, protein-rich insects root about in the soil, and fat, fleet fish swim in the rivers, all a joyous smorgasboard waiting for a bear like Cinder. Trees and bushes ramble up the mountainsides, dappled with sun and shade.

Scientists tranquilized the bears, gave them tags and radio collars, and transported them to the site. Then, in a final act of tough love, they hounded them into the woods with pyrotechnics, yelling, and bear dogs, to ensure that they stay away from the greatest danger to their safety and happiness – mankind.

Watch The Release

We’ve learned a lot in the last 65 years, and we’re still learning. Our understanding of wildfire management, habitat protection, and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation has advanced, and also has a lot of room for growth. New threats like climate change loom even as old threats like deforestation remain a concern. But just as it did in the 1950s, compassion still drives us to help wild animals in need.

Watching Cinder run off into her woods, wild at heart, I can’t help but think: Smokey would be proud.

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