WESTERLY — A year ago, members of the Dunn’s Corners Fire Department had to work hard to save a 50-year tradition, altering the annual Karl E. Kenyon Smokey Bear Parade to adhere to social-distancing guidelines. Firefighters broke from the usual crowd interactions and local residents were left to wave as a rolling rally carried the popular fire-prevention mascot by.
With a sunny, 80-degree summer evening Thursday coming on the heels of pandemic restrictions being lifted, there were no such challenges, as families lined the parking lots in Charlestown, Weekapaug and Misquamicut and filled Bay Street in Watch Hill for a chance to receive some goodies, talk with the first responders and take a picture with Smokey.
The parade, which has run for more than 50 consecutive years and was renamed in 2010 after one of the parade’s biggest advocates, former Dunn’s Corners Fire Chief Karl Kenyon, drew hundreds of people to each of the four scheduled stops as the event set “a likely record” for the number of participants involved. The overwhelming turnout would have made Karl proud, his son and current Dunn’s Corners Fire Chief Keith Kenyon said.
“This is why he loved the parade; this opportunity to see the public and children smiling and everyone from different departments enjoying each other’s company,” Kenyon said as he looked around the Charlestown Town Beach parking lot during the first stop. “This is the first time that this lot has been this full.“
The annual parade has become a popular mid-July draw for many in the region. Kenyon and Dunn’s Corners Deputy Chief Jeffrey Thomas each said the event has grown year after year, and now includes participation from firefighters and ambulance personnel across southwestern Rhode Island.
This year’s event included well over 30 vehicles representing 24 agencies, including the Dunn’s Corners, Westerly, Misquamicut, Charlestown-Richmond, Richmond-Carolina and Hope Valley-Wyoming fire departments, the Charlestown Rescue Ambulance Service and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Protection.
Andrew and Kristen Wells, who brought their twin boys, Parker and Tyler, 4, and their sister Eloise, 3, to see the parade, said it has become something of a tradition for his family to attend over the past few years. Andrew Wells said his brother works with the Charlestown Rescue Ambulance Service and although the children were a bit scared of the loud noises in the past, nothing was going to keep them from enjoying it this year.
“They have just been so excited. All day long they’ve been talking about it,” Kristen Wells said.
Parker and Tyler, each wearing special headphones to help drown out some of the sirens, excitedly responded to their mother’s comment by reiterating that they were ready for the parade to come. Asked what their favorite part about the event was, neither had to think very much before responding with an excited “Smokey!”
“I just want to see Smokey and the trucks,” Parker said.
Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Chief Andrew Kettle said it was an honor for his department to be able to participate this year, and said the annual event has become a favorite among his agency’s members.
The program allows first responders from across the region to interact with the public during a non-emergency, to introduce themselves to area residents, to show off their department’s vehicles and to promote both volunteerism and fire safety. Kettle said the combination of opportunities is one that provides benefit to both first responders and the general public.
“Each year, this is one of my favorite nights of the summer, and when you look around, you can see why,” Kettle said. “You get to see everyone, you get to have some fun and you get a chance to promote safety. It’s just a great event.”
Allowing pleasant interaction with the public and promoting fire safety have been two of the primary goals of the parade from the very beginning, Kenyon said.
He said following the restrictions last year, the department received more inquiries than ever before about the 2021 event, including questions from those who were hoping for a better opportunity to talk with Smokey and the region’s first responders. He said with popular events like this, the department can also begin to introduce the next generation of volunteers to fire and ambulance services and help prepare them to be the community’s leaders in the future.
And of course, it doesn’t hurt to see so many children smiling in the process.
“It’s hard to pick a favorite part, but it becomes a little easier when you look around and see all the kids smiling and just enjoying,” Kenyon said. “For me, that’s what this is all about.”