No fireworks? Agencies cite safety concerns for decision | SierraSun.com
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No fireworks? Agencies cite safety concerns for decision

John A. Bayless

The fireworks display at Donner Lake might not take place next Fourth of July, following an announcement by a group of public agencies that they would not issue permits for the event unless substantial changes are made.

Personnel from Truckee Fire Protection District, Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Truckee-Donner Chamber of Commerce, Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District and the Town of Truckee met in a workshop closed to the press and the public by Town Manager Steve Wright on July 15 to discuss problems which followed the fireworks display this year.

Wright handed out a press release the next day, explaining that the agencies had decided not to issue permits for the fireworks because of safety concerns. The parade and other Fourth of July events would be unaffected.

An NCSO deputy was injured while trying to break up a fight following the event this year, and was airlifted because an ambulance could not make it through the crowds and traffic around Donner Lake.

Officers also had to deal with several disturbances outside the West End Beach, including rock and bottle-throwing drunks and a confrontation with a mob which was rocking the cars of people attempting to leave on South Shore Drive.

Capt. Ken Duncan of the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office said the concern is for public safety – especially in the event of an incident which would require access for emergency vehicles to the area.

Significant problem

“The consensus of opinion among public agencies is that the event creates a significant problem for public safety,” Duncan said. “The roadways are too narrow, and there is insufficient ingress and egress. There would be major problems responding to an emergency, whether for an injured person or a fire.”

He said emergency vehicles could not respond effectively during the event because of the thousands of pedestrians and vehicles which block Donner Pass Road, Old Highway 40 and South Shore Drive.

“We are in complete agreement that the event is dangerous and has potential for significant problems,” he said. “We are opposed to it continuing in that location without major modifications to the way the event is done.”

Duncan said he was not opposed to the community having an even like the fireworks display, but has major concerns about public safety and the safety of all public officers.

“They need to look for an alternate site, where crowd control would not be restricted by the limitations of the site,” he said. He said Old Highway 40 is not wide enough, and the pedestrians and cars parked along the side of the road cause severe problems with traffic control.

“I would never again use all lanes of Donner Pass Road to dump out the traffic from the event,” Duncan said. “What if someone needed an ambulance?”

Duncan said he would not sign Alcoholic Beverage Commission licenses or festival permits for the event next year unless the situation changed significantly.

Truckee Fire District and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have also expressed concerns about the danger to residents and fire crews should a fire break out in the area.

Truckee Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger and CDF Battalion Chief Bryce Keller said that their agencies will not support the fireworks at Donner Lake.

Truckee Fire District and CDF provide fire protection for the town, and CDF supplied the truck on standby at the fireworks display this year.

“We concur with consensus of the meeting that the fireworks be eliminated next year,” Terwilliger said. “We think it best the show be eliminated from West End Beach. He said the safety of fire district personnel on the scene and their inability to respond to incidents in Donner Lake subdivision were the primary concerns of the district.

“It is too bad a small community event has turned into such a mess,” Terwilliger said. “I don’t see a solution to it. The West End area is too congested for what it has turned into.” He said the event also causes a large draw-down of personnel, who are then not available to serve other areas of the district.

Chamber CEO Rachelle Pellissier said she hoped a solution could be found to the current impasse.

“There are ways to make these events safer, or what happens after the events,” Pellissier said. “There was a party of 300 kids across the street from the beach that the police never went to.” She said a stronger presence of uniformed police officers would have helped this year.

“Police presence is what it takes,” she said. “I hate to see the fireworks called off.” She pointed out that South Shore at Lake Tahoe had a similar disturbance this year, but is not planning to cancel the event in 1999.

“Last year (at Donner Lake) the police were there all day long,” she said. “There were two in the parking lot and on the beach all day long.”

She said traffic problems are a part of any major event, even at concert halls designed to accommodate large crowds. Still, Pellissier said the fireworks display is a gigantic event, which takes months of planning. More than 5,000 people attended the display this year.

“The event is too huge to even handle,” she said. “I don’t know now what the best solution is. I really feel a bigger presence of police is the solution, but Captain Duncan said he could not get any more officers. It will take a lot of heads to get together to find what the solution is.”

She said some of her suggestions for a future fireworks event would include bright lights in the parking lot and on the beach after the fireworks display is over.

“However, unless the police are going to be a presence there, I don’t know what we are going to do,” she said. She said some problem areas, like the South Shore Bridge, would require police observation throughout the day.

Council member Bob Drake informed town council of the agencies’ decision during the council meeting July 16.

He said all agencies involved agreed that the the town should have a family-based, community-oriented event, with a small-town atmosphere.

“Both law enforcement and fire safety officials expressed extreme concerns about their respective abilities to fulfill their duties and responsibilities to the public,” Drake said. “Both stated their inability to respond to calls for assistance regarding medical emergencies, fire calls or police service. Both have Stated they cannot again support the current West End Beach activities and the fireworks show. The group agreed that the community-oriented events should continue.” He said safety officials have agreed to work with community groups to develop events appropriate for the community.

“In the coming meetings, the town will agendize and discuss the town’s open container law,” Drake said. “We will also review the current ordinance regarding the jumping problem at the bridge on South Shore Drive. This site seems to be a focal point for those individuals who cause public safety problems along the West End Beach.”

He said he believed the agencies’ decision was a positive and aggressive step to return the Fourth of July to the people who live in Truckee or love Truckee.

Drake’s council member report prompted comments from council members Maia Schneider and Don McCormack, who said the public should be given an opportunity to have input on the issue.

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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