Meet Cal Fire’s new ax-carrying, big-pawed, high-fivin’ mascot: Captain Cal

What has whiskers, a big red ax, and loves full containment on wildfires?

Cal Fire unveiled its new mascot, Captain Cal, Tuesday morning at a news conference on the steps of the state Capitol.

Captain Cal is a bipedal mountain lion with a friendly smile who loves giving high-fives with his impressive paws. He’s also an effort by the state agency to help boost youth-centric education efforts about fire safety and wildfires.

His motto: “Safety starts with you.”

Legislative leaders and top administrators with the state fire agency, including Cal Fire Director Thom Porter, spoke briefly about this year’s fire season and what Captain Cal represents.

“The mountain lion ... is really a California icon,” Porter said. “We could’ve gone with a bear, but then we would’ve been competing with Smokey. We didn’t want to compete with Smokey. And the cougar, or mountain lion, is ubiquitous to all of California. It really is in all corners of the state.”

Porter added that the design process for Captain Cal took close to five years.

The mascot came down the west steps of the Capitol to greet media and families that had arrived to the event, which also had a number of entertainment and educational booths set up.

He even had a friendly face-off with California Highway Patrol mascot, Chipper the chipmunk, as they compared height. Captain Cal was a fair bit taller.

Captain Cal will join the ranks of Smokey Bear, the U.S. Forest Service’s black bear who has given stern public service announcements on preventing forest fires since the 1940s; and Sparky the Fire Dog, the dalmatian who serves as the official mascot of the National Fire Protection Association.

Cal Fire shared a bit of Cal’s backstory online Tuesday morning:

“Cal grew up in the foothills of California. He lived in a community of other animals in the wildland and loved helping out. Being the helper cub that he was, he was always the first to offer a helping hand or do some heavy lifting. As he grew, he learned the power of his strength and how important it was to him to help others.

“One day, there was a massive wildfire where Cal lived. The fire spread quickly and it seemed there wouldn’t be time to evacuate everyone out of the area. Instinctively, Cal sprang into action, getting everyone lined up and to the Cal Fire vehicles that would lead them to safety.”

On Saturday, crews achieved 100 percent containment on the Sand Fire, one week after it ignited near Rumsey in rural Yolo County. At just over 2,500 acres, the fire was the largest Cal Fire has responded to so far in 2019. It broke out June 10 amid low humidity, high temperatures and very gusty winds throughout much of Northern California.

Cal Fire is ramping up education and awareness campaigns as weather gets hot, wildfire conditions loom and fireworks season approaches ahead of July 4.

“We expect to see (Captain Cal) go a long way in getting our messaging out, educating the children at that young age so they can continue to carry this messaging and education up through their adult life,” Cal Fire Deputy Chief Scott McLean said.

The agency is also reinforcing messages about water safety, as Northern California rivers are still running cold and fast after a rainy winter and spring.

Cal Fire’s union, Cal Fire Local 2881, also this week rolled out 30- and 60-second TV ads airing in Sacramento. The commercials urge residents to protect their homes, and also sends a message on Cal Fire’s overworked firefighters.

A state budget sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom last week would hire an additional 131 firefighters, but union President Tim Edwards said the department needs 1,000 more to give firefighters much-needed breaks and relief.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.