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Smokey Bear hot air balloon will lift off at Cherry Festival this week

A familiar face in fire prevention will soar above the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City this week as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources hosts the Smokey Bear hot air balloon.

The balloon – a so-called “special shape” featuring Smokey’s face and signature ranger hat – will be inflated in the late afternoon each day at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Smokey Bear – who celebrates his 80th birthday this year – also will serve as the parade marshal for the DTE Energy Foundation Cherry Royale Parade at 11:15 a.m. Saturday, July 6.

“We’re excited to host the Smokey Bear balloon this year and give people a chance to enjoy this pop culture icon and learn more about preventing wildland fires,” said Paul Rogers, DNR fire prevention specialist. The DNR will also host a separate fire prevention booth downtown during the event.

The balloon – which previously appeared at the 2021 Upper Peninsula State Fair in Escanaba – is impressive. Measuring 97 feet tall and up to 72 feet in diameter, Smokey's balloon is made of 4,670 square yards of ripstop nylon weighing 546 pounds. It holds 145,000 cubic feet of air and requires a crew of 12-15 volunteers to launch.

“Smokey is a fire prevention icon,” Rogers said. “The balloon brings attention to Smokey’s very important cause.”

History of Smokey's fire prevention career

Smokey Bear was born on Aug. 9, 1944, when the USDA Forest Service and the Ad Council agreed that a fictional bear named Smokey would be their symbol for the forest fire prevention.

Fiction and reality collided in 1950, when a bear cub was rescued during a blaze in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. He was treated for burns on his paws and hind legs and his rescue became a national news story. The cub was dubbed “Smokey” and taken to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. In 1952, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote a popular song about the bear, and Smokey’s image and longstanding slogan – “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” – became cemented on the national scene. Smokey has been a key figure in U.S. fire prevention efforts ever since.

When to visit the balloon

As weather permits during the Cherry Festival, the Smokey Bear balloon will lift off each evening sometime after 6 p.m. and will make tethered flights until dusk Wednesday through Saturday at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Thursday will include an after dark “balloon glow” moment, when the vast balloon is lit from within. The Smokey Bear bounce house and other fire prevention activities will also be at the site.

Note to editors: Accompanying photo is available below for download. Caption information follows.

  • Balloon fun: The Smokey Bear hot air balloon, based in New Mexico, will visit the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City July 3-6, sponsored by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. This photo is from the balloon's 2021 visit to the Upper Peninsula State Fair in Escanaba.