Wind could ground big balloons at today’s Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in New York

NEW YORK (AP) — Smokey Bear might feel like he’s battling Santa Ana winds — if he even gets a chance to fly.

New York City’s big Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will take place Thursday amid strong winds that could potentially ground the giant character balloons, which have caused mishaps and injuries in the past when gusts have blown them off course.

The New York City Police Department is monitoring wind gauges along the 2-½ mile (3.22-kilometer) parade route and will order the 16 helium-filled balloons to a lower altitude or have them removed entirely if wind speeds reach dangerous levels.

That’s only happened once, in 1971.

The National Weather Service is projecting sustained winds of up to 24 mph (38.6 kph) with gusts to 40 mph (64.4 kph) during the parade.

The iconic characters that soar between Manhattan skyscrapers will be grounded if sustained winds exceed 23 mph (37 kph) and gusts exceed 34 mph (54.7 kph) under city rules implemented after wind blew a “Cat in the Hat” balloon into a lamp post near Central Park in 1997, critically injuring a woman.

“It’ll be a game-day decision on what we’re going to do with the balloons,” Chief of Department Terence Monahan said at a Wednesday briefing on the police department’s parade safety measures.

If they’re allowed to fly this year, the intensity of the wind will determine how high they soar. Each balloon has a distinct risk profile, which factors in its size and weight and details the optimal altitude for a given wind speed.

The character balloons can go as high as 55 feet (15.8 meters) off the ground and as low as 10 feet (3 meters), said Chief of Patrol Rodney Harrison, who has the final say on whether the balloons fly.

If the wind picks up and handlers struggle to keep control of a balloon, potentially putting spectators in harm’s way, Harrison said it will be taken to a side street off the parade route and safely deflated.

“At the end of the day, public safety is paramount and we want everybody to enjoy the event,” he said.

Strong winds were also a concern last year, but they ended up staying calm enough to let the balloons fly — albeit some at noticeably lower-than-usual heights. The outstretched hand of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” balloon, for one, was so low it appeared to hit some of his handlers on their wool cap-covered heads.

One bright spot in this year’s forecast: the temperature is expected to hit a high of about 53 degrees (11.7 Celsius).

Last year was one of the city’s coldest Thanksgivings in decades. A temperature of 21 degrees (minus 6 Celsius) at the start of the parade prompted spectators to bundle up in blankets and sleeping bags.

In addition to giant balloons of Snoopy, Spongebob, anti-wildfire warrior Smokey and others, the parade features about 8,000 marchers, performances from bands and singers such as Idina Menzel of “Frozen” fame, Kelly Rowland and Chicago, two-dozen floats and a finale with Santa Claus.

The NYPD will have thousands of officers stationed along the parade route. They include counterterrorism teams with long guns, plainclothes officers mixed in with the crowd and about three dozen explosive detection K-9s. The department also plans to fly a drone to monitor the parade route.

All spectators will be screened with metal detectors at security checkpoints. Certain areas near the start and finish are off-limits or will have space taken up by staging for NBC’s live broadcast.

Police cars and sand-filled sanitation trucks are being positioned to stop vehicles from driving into the crowd and technology is being used to detect drones, which are illegal to fly over crowds in New York City.

Counterterrorism Chief James Waters said the technology detected several drones flying in the vicinity of the United Nations General Assembly gathering in September. They were all non-hostile, he said.

There are no known, credible threats to the city, police said.

A threat posted over the weekend on Reddit threatening to bomb Times Square was deemed not credible, the police department said, though it did increase counterterrorism deployments to the area out of what it said was an abundance of caution.

Big crowds are expected to line the parade route, which runs 46 blocks from the outskirts of Central Park to Macy’s flagship store in midtown Manhattan.

In the past, spectators have lined up as many as 15 deep in some places. In 2017, four activists briefly disrupted things when they jumped over barriers and sat down in the street to protest changes in U.S. immigration policy.

In recent years, though, wind has been the biggest threat.

In 2005, eight years after the “Cat and the Hat” went off course, an M&Ms balloon smacked into a lamp post in Times Square, causing cuts and bruises to a woman in a wheelchair and her 11-year-old sister.

In 2017, a gust on an otherwise calm day sent a smaller balloon into a tree branch. That one popped and fell harmlessly onto the crowd.