A week in advance of 2017’s Shambhala Music Festival (Aug. 9 to 14), some people started wondering what would happen to the instant temporary town of 17,000 people in the event of a wildfire.
Festival organizers said it would not be harder than evacuating a regular town, because they were ready with trained personnel, firefighting equipment and an evacuation plan.
“If another community were to get evacuated, they would be better off to come here,” said Chris Armstrong, the festival’s head of public safety.
People could easily walk out if necessary, he said. Others wondered what those thousands of people would do once they got to the highway on foot.
On Aug. 10 an evacuation alert was issued for residents in and around Nelway, near the McCormick Creek wildfire, 12 kilometres away from the festival. Two days later those same residents were ordered to leave their homes, and an alert was issued for the festival, advising them to be ready to leave on a moment’s notice.
“The fire is now an estimated 250 hectares in size and is behaving unpredictably,” the B.C. Wildfire Service reported.
Emergency management staff said they were worried about the single road access to the festival.
By Saturday (the second last day of the festival) the McCormick Creek fire had grown to 350 hectares and had moved to nine km from the festival. Fire officials said they were not just worried about the McCormick Creek fire: the festival grounds and surrounding area were under extreme fire risk of new fires.
Leading up to and during the final Shambhala weekend there were lengthy, and reportedly tense, meetings between the festival organizers, the Regional District of Central Kootenays’ emergency management people, the B.C. Wildfire Service, and the RCMP.
As a result, the festival cancelled its Sunday music schedule. They announced that festival goers would leave the grounds on Sunday rather than Monday as they otherwise would have. This appeared to be a compromise to avoid the issuance of an evacuation order.
On Saturday night it rained a little, and temperatures cooled. After some people had left on Sunday morning, and while others were streaming off the grounds, the organizers changed their minds and said the festival would continue through Sunday. Attendees with a wristband were allowed back in.
Emergency personnel stated that they disagreed with the decision.
“It’s entirely up to those guys. It’s a private function and they’ve made their own decision due to their own risk assessment,” said regional fire chief Andrew Bellerby.