Safety tops discussion on fate of 4th | SierraSun.com
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Safety tops discussion on fate of 4th

JOHN A. BAYLESS

A committee formed during a public forum Thursday night will attempt to hash out the safety concerns involved with the annual fireworks display so the traditional celebration can continue next year.

Truckee Council Member Maia Schneider, who facilitated the forum, said she believed it went well.

“A committee of about 17 people was formed, and that committee will be looking at possible solutions put forth in the forum to see if there is any solution to this problem,” Schneider said.

She said members will include representatives from the Truckee Fire Protection District and Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, the Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District, and the Truckee-Donner Chamber of Commerce, as well as concerned residents.

Both the fire district and the sheriff’s office have said they will not put their employees or the public at risk by issuing permits for the celebration, which draws tens of thousands of people to the Truckee area.

A Nevada County Sheriff’s deputy was injured while breaking up a fight outside the event at the West End Beach this year, and an uncooperative and unruly crowd delayed ambulance response to the incident. The injured deputy was airlifted by a California Highway Patrol helicopter.

Deputies responding to the incident were faced with a crowd of more than 200 intoxicated young adults, who shouted obscenities at officers and threw rocks and bottles at patrol cars and the ambulance. The crowd, which was blocking Southshore Drive near the bridge, also surrounded the cars of residents who were trying to return to their homes, rocking cars and refusing to yield so the motorists could pass.

In the week after the incident, public safety officials said access to the area for fire or police vehicles was too limited during the celebration, and that it was impossible to guarantee timely response to any emergency.

Those issues and others were discussed in the forum, as participants went over each of the Fourth of July events and considered whether they should continue.

By show of hands, those present indicated that they definitely wanted the parade and street dance to continue. They also indicated that the fireworks and the West End Beach events should continue, if the safety issues could be resolved.

“The consensus was that the fireworks should be continued if we can do it in some way,” Schneider said. “[Fire Chief] Mike Terwilliger said the two main concerns were ingress and egress and the safety of officers. There were a lot of suggestions.”

She said the main hurdles for the event are funding and personnel resources for law enforcement officers.

“We can hire more CHP, but we are maxed out on the Nevada County Sheriff’s deputies available,” Schneider said.

Although deputies patrol the West End Beach area during the Fourth of July events, crowds there are only part of the problem.

Participants at the forum pointed out that other incidents also take place throughout Truckee on the holiday, and require police response when they get out of hand. One which occurred this year on South Shore Drive drew more than 300 people.

“Everyone has to take responsibility for this, including the people who own homes and rent them,” Schneider said. “We have groups of people up here on holidays who just run rampant.”

She said authorities need more manpower to police the event and the whole region during the holiday, but funding must be found for the extra security.

In the forum, Capt. Ken Duncan of the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office indicated he would still have problems with 100 more officers, and said his request for 10 extra officers was ignored by the county this year.

“I sympathize with Ken Duncan’s position,” Schneider said. “He has a hard row to hoe, with limited funds and limited staff and the town’s population increasing exponentially over the weekend. But I still want to see a solution so that we can have a holiday that is enjoyable for everyone, especially the locals.”

Schneider said the fireworks committee meetings would be public, although it is not an official town committee.

Chamber CEO Rachelle Pellissier also said the forum had positive results.

“I thought it went fine,” she said. “People were able to give their opinion on how it should go. Whether we do fireworks or not, it is an important decision that the whole town needs to deal with.”

However, she said public safety is the paramount concern of the chamber.

“We have to decide if we can do this safely,” Pellissier said. “So do Ken [Duncan] and Mike [Terwilliger]. They are looking out for the safety of the public. We should all decide if we can make it a safe event, but it will take a lot of people working on it.”

Duncan said he and another sheriff’s deputy have signed up as members of the committee.

“Myself and Kevin Harper will serve on the committee,” Duncan said. “I certainly want to be involved, and Kevin also indicated he wants to be involved. Our people are very interested in the process and want to have input.”

Duncan said he has received letters about the fireworks display, and is open to feasible suggestions from residents.

“We’ll sit down and get their input, and hopefully come up with a safe event for the community,” he said. He said it is important for people to understand the perspective of law enforcement and fire officers, who have seen all the dangers of the current celebration.

“The community needs to have such an event,” Duncan said. “It is a very important celebration for us, but it needs to be done in a way that is safe.”

Terwilliger said the fire protection district wanted to make the public aware of how serious the disturbance at the fireworks was this year.

“I think the intent of the fire district was to promote dialogue to recognize the problem,” Terwilliger said. “It was a very volatile event and communities have a tendency to forget as time goes on. When we came out strongly opposed, we wanted to make sure people who were not there would realize that this is a very dangerous situation, and remember it.”

He said some one practical idea presented in the forum was to move the fireworks display to another location, better suited to handling crowds.

“The issue of looking at Boreal or Squaw Valley as a site is excellent, because they have large events all the time and those places were developed for public events,” Terwilliger said. “The West End Beach of Donner Lake is a 40-year-old community. It was built many, many years ago. West End Beach park is a very small community park. Based on that, it cannot support an influx of 15,000 people for an event. It wasn’t made for that.”

Schneider and Town Manager Steve Wright will facilitate one meeting of the committee, after which the group will select its leaders. For now, anyone seeking information about the fireworks committee should contact Steve Wright at 582-7700.

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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