The big guy has returned to the N.C. State Fair.
Big Smokey Bear is back at the N.C. Forest Service exhibit, greeting fairgoers by name and sharing all kinds of information about fire prevention and safety.
"Just beware," he told the crowd Friday morning, "I'm the fire prevention bear."
Smokey, who turned 70 this year, made his first appearance at the fair in about 1982. Chris Carlson, who worked for years in the forest service's information and education department before retiring, is credited with building the 25-foot tall fiberglass bear who is wearing the biggest pair of jeans you've ever seen.
Smokey spent more than two dozen years entertaining fairgoers with his folksy tips and greetings. Forest service staffers working the fair say regulars come back each year to say hi to the big guy. When he's not at the fair, he travels the state, stopping at regional fairs and events.
But he had to take a break for the last four years. Smokey's joints were getting old. His head swivels left and right and up and down; his mouth opens and closes; and his hand waves. Watson said Smokey needed some tightening up and overall refurbishment. His hat got a new coat of paint and new letters that spell his name. His nose, mouth and teeth were repainted. His shovel was fixed. And he got a new pair of pants.
"That's a pretty large inseam," joked Don Watson, district forester.
During the hiatus, the forest service replaced him with an inflatable Smokey, but it just wasn't the same.
The original is likely the only Smokey of his kind in the country, Watson said. In fact, the Smithsonian is said to have had some interest in it.
"It was built for North Carolina," he said. "It was built by forest service employees."
I'm not going to be the one to reveal the magic of Smokey. But he does really greet visitors by name and talks with them while they pose for a picture or just marvel at his size.
On Friday morning, kids and their parents weren't quite sure what to think as they introduced themselves to a ranger stationed with Smokey, who immediately said hello. One girl was so enamored that she returned to see him again.
"The adults like it, I think, as much as the kids," Watson said.
He definitely put a smile on my face!
The forest service exhibit sits behind the Heritage Circle. Get to it by crossing the bridge into the Fair Forest. The exhibit also includes information about fire prevention and an island where visitors can see a single engine air tanker, helicopter and tractor plow, all favorites with the kids. It's all free with fair admission.