WESTERLY — For more than 50 years, area residents and summer visitors have flocked to the shoreline in mid-July to see a parade of firetrucks, snap photos with Smokey the Bear and interact with area first responders. Members of the Dunn's Corners Fire Department are not about to let the COVID-19 pandemic bring that tradition to an end.
Officials said this week that "the show will go on," with the return of the annual Karl E. Kenyon Smokey Bear Parade through Westerly and Charlestown on July 16. The annual parade will look a bit different this year, admitted Dunn's Corners Fire Capt. Jeffrey Thomas, but the abridged program will allow the agency to keep the tradition alive while simultaneously protecting volunteers and those in the community.
"Unfortunately we will need to have the parade continue straight through and not be able to hand out fire-prevention materials or interact with the public at each of the stops as we have in the past, but it's a small price to keep the tradition alive," said Thomas, publicity chairman for the event.
For members of the department and area first responders, the parade is a long-running tradition that has grown to draw thousands from throughout southwestern Rhode Island every year.
This year's event will once again include approximately 30 trucks, rescue vehicles and other equipment, representing nearly all departments involved as members of the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League, Westerly and Charlestown police and ambulance agencies, and representatives of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which provides an actor and the Smokey the Bear costume.
Unlike past years, however, the program will not include the traditional four stops along the parade route. Those interested in taking part will be asked to not wait at the stops and instead spread out along the parade route. All those in attendance are encouraged to also wear masks and practice social distancing, officials said.
It's not an ideal situation by any means, said both Thomas and Acting Fire Chief Keith Kenyon, but the abridged program will allow the department to still provide an important community-based event at a time when such opportunities are few and far between as a result of the coronavirus.
"We almost weren't able to have this. As of a couple months ago, parades were not even a consideration in the state, and we didn't know if this was going to be able to happen," Kenyon said. "We're just excited that we can safely offer something to the community."
The annual parade began more than 50 years ago under the direction of former Chief Karl E. Kenyon, Keith Kenyon's father, as a way for volunteers to interact with the community. It quickly grew to include Smokey the Bear and surrounding towns. When Karl Kenyon passed away, the department renamed the parade in his honor.
Kenyon said he is disappointed that Dunn's Corners would not be able host the usual stops or its post-parade dinner for regional volunteers — he said the agency could not justify doing so with the COVID-19 risk so high — but was happy the event did not have to be canceled entirely. It would have been the first year since the parade began that the event was canceled.
"It's been a long-running tradition and we are happy it will be able to continue at least another year longer," Kenyon said.
The 2020 parade will kick off from the Westerly Walmart parking lot at 5 p.m. and will proceed along the usual route with checkpoints at the Charlestown Beach parking lot, in Weekapaug at Knowles and Weekapaug roads, by the Misquamicut Fire Department on Crandall Avenue, and on Bay Street in Watch Hill.
The procession is expected to be slightly shorter than usual due to the elimination of stops, Thomas said, but each phase is expected to take approximately 45 minutes to complete.
Updates regarding the procession will also be posted to the Dunn's Corners Fire Department Facebook page at facebook.com/ DunnsCornersFD. For more information, residents may also visit the event page at facebook.com/events/257628285542027/.