As the start of the annual Karl E. Kenyon Smokey Bear Parade approached on Thursday afternoon, Dunn's Corners Fire Chief Christopher DeGrave had a tough decision to make. Radar maps weren't favorable much of the day, but the parade had never been canceled and he wasn't about to be the first chief to make that decision.
By the time the group arrived at Charlestown Town Beach, however, the skies offered a break for the more than two dozen families who came out to see the trucks, thank the firefighters and enjoy what a summer tradition. And as the firefighters and their apparatus departed, many families lined Charlestown Town Beach Road and Matunuck Schoolhouse Road to wave them on toward their next destination in Weekapaug.
"There was a slightly lower turnout at our first few locations, but this is still a great turnout," DeGrave said with a smile as he looked around at the firefighters and Smokey Bear interacting with families in Charlestown. "It's good to see this, to know we have the support of community and this event regardless of the weather."
The parade is hosted by Dunn's Corners in partnership with the state Department of Environmental Management, which provides an actor and the Smoke Bear costume. The parade is held on the third Thursday of July.
Led by the hometown fire company to each stop from Charlestown to Watch Hill, the 2019 event featured nearly 30 trucks, rescue vehicles and other equipment, with fire and ambulance services from Westerly to East Greenwich and South Kingstown taking part.
Jeremy Becker had the opportunity to see the parade for the first time in 25 years and shared the experience with his son, Atticus, who is about to turn 7. A California resident who grew up in Westerly and returns for an extended visit with his parents each summer, Becker said that although the parade is bigger than when he was kid, it was still the same fun, loud and bright event he recalled.
"I remember being his age, I was awe-inspired. I would run down Sunnyside Drive with my brother and sister just to catch a glimpse once we heard them passing by," Becker said. "This is an opportunity (for Atticus) to experience something he will never forget."
For Atticus, who covered his ears at times but kept a smile on throughout the stop, it was worth the trip.
He collected souvenirs and fire safety materials, met with Smokey Bear and talked with several firefighters.
"It was cool. It more than I expected," Atticus said. When his father asked if it was loud, he then replied, "Yes but it's nothing I can't handle."
Dunn's Corners Fire Capt. Jeffrey Thomas, who handles publicity for the event, said he was pleased with the response again this year.
The tradition began more than 50 years ago. Thomas said it was intended as a way for volunteers to interact with the community, and under the direction of former Chief Karl E. Kenyon, it grew to include Smokey Bear and surrounding towns.
The parade isn't simply summer entertainment. Passing hundreds of waving residents along the way, the parade gives the community a chance to thank the volunteers as well, Thomas explained.
"It means a lot to our guys as well," he said. "Up and down the route, there are kids holding signs and people waving and shouting thank you. It does a lot for us to see that level of support and recognition."
Fire Lt. Doran Bercovici, a volunteer with the Cross Mills' Fire Department in Charlestown, praised the turnout in his town, saying they didn't know what to expect when they arrived, especially with rain still falling just 30 minutes earlier.
When they arrived, he said coming into a parking lot filled with area residents gave him an encouraging feeling and reminded him why it is he continues to volunteer.
"Every year we do this, it feels like we have a better turnout. It really is incredible," he said.