In 1943, Walt Disney made available the characters from his animated feature Bambi to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to use in a poster promoting the prevention of forest fires. According to SmokeyBear.com:
"The "Bambi" poster was a success and proved that using an animal as a fire prevention symbol would work. A fawn could not be used in subsequent campaigns because "Bambi" was on loan from Walt Disney studios for only one year; the Forest Service would need to find an animal that would belong to the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign. It was finally decided that the Nation's number one firefighter should be a bear."
Thus, on August 9, 1944, a certain and future iconic character was born.