The earliest version of the Smokey Bear awards began in the mid-1950s, in the form of scrolls given out as awards for fire prevention activities. Clint Davis of The Advertising Council assigned a USDA Forest Service artist, Rudolph "Rudy" Wendelin, the task of developing the statuette version of the award. It would be presented by the three partners in the fire prevention campaign — National Association of State Foresters, the Advertising Council and the USDA Forest Service — to outstanding organizations (and later individuals as well) for their help in fire prevention on a national level. Wendelin modeled the statuette after the Hollywood Oscar®. It was a simple design, which symbolized the shape of Smokey Bear. In 1957, the scrolls were officially replaced by the statuette.
The Golden Smokey Bear award is presented to individuals for their proven record of service in wildfire prevention on a national scale. President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave out the first Golden Smokey Bear awards in 1958 to mark the fire prevention work accomplished the previous year (1957). The Ad Council, the American Forestry Association and the American Forest Products Institute all received awards. Capitan, New Mexico, also received an award on behalf of the Children of America. Judy Bell, daughter of Ruth and Ray Bell, who had nursed the real Smokey cub back to health after his rescue, was sent to Washington, D.C., to represent this group and accept the award from the President.
The Bronze Smokey Bear award has also been awarded yearly since 1962. From 1962 to 1979 it was referred to as the Smokey Bear plaque. The Bronze Smokey Bear award is presented for outstanding contributions to statewide wildfire prevention efforts.
Silver Smokey Bear statuettes were later developed and first awarded in 1968 to recognize regional organizations or individuals for a proven record of service in regional (multistate) areas throughout 1967.
Representatives from the National Association of State Foresters, the USDA Forest Service and the Advertising Council, jointly select the annual Smokey Bear award winners from the pool of nominated candidates.
As of 2013, only three people have won all three levels of Smokey Bear Awards: Harry R. "Punky" McClellan, Edwin Earl Rodger and Fred X. Turck.