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Farewell, Smokey's Playland

Smokey Bear's paddle-wheel boat churned through Timber Queen Pond for the last time Sunday.

Solemn in the heat, children gazed over the green water, breathing in the odor of sunbaked mud and weeds. Most had come with their parents to escape the day's heat. Many had come for one final romp in Smokey's Playland, a fixture at the Jackson County Fair for nearly 20 years.

It's gonna get gone, said 4-year-old Brandon Otto.

I don't like it, said 8-year-old Zarith Hammond.

— Crews will start dismantling the popular attraction today to make way for construction of the Lithia Motors Amphitheater. Organizers estimate that more than 100,000 kids have ridden the park's paddle boat and steam-powered locomotive.

This is a small portion of the past, said Mark Moran, deputy fire marshal with Jackson County Fire District No. 3.

The park was dreamed up 19 years ago by members of the Rogue Valley Fire Prevention Co-op to teach children about fire safety. With donations from timber companies, organizers first built Smokey's fire station followed by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM cabins. A portable sawmill cut much of the lumber on site, Moran said.

The stalls regularly feature exhibits on the area's national forests and fire prevention tips. A newer addition, the Fire Safety House shows children how to safely escape their bedroom in the event of fire. A petting zoo brings exotic animals each year.

I made a point to bring them down here because it is all free and educational for the kids, said Hammond's mother Chris Bratton.

A Smokey fan since she could toddle to the play land, 10-year-old Becky VanDuker laments the park's closure.

I think it's really cool that they have this because it teaches people what to do in fires, she said.

We're so bummed that it's not gonna be here next year, said Cathy Cook, who rode the locomotive with her 9-year-old daughter Nicole.

Although nostalgic, Moran has a positive outlook.

The railroad tracks and BLM cabin will be dismantled and stored away until they can be used in another venue. The fate of the locomotive ' owned and operated by 70-year-old Bert Beecher of Ashland ' is uncertain.

However, organizers have proposed a new life for the little train shuttling fair goers from the parking lot to the admission gates. The Fire Safety House will continue educating kids through local fire prevention programs, Moran said.

We're looking forward to a new opportunity and challenge.

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The Smokey Paddleboat, which has been ferrying children for 20 years in an interactive experience that helps them learn about fire prevention, ran for the last time Sunday. Mail Tribune / Andrew Mariman - Mail Tribune Andrew Mariman