WORDS: Emmalee Brunt aka Betty
PHOTOGRAPHY: Roco Newson aka Kora + Bobby Light for Betty and Kora
The 20th anniversary of Shambhala Music Festival, August 11-14, 2017, was an emotionally charged weekend, not only for the ringing in of 20 successful years of one of Canada’s premiere music festivals but the event and its people had to share the celebrations with a looming forest fire in the area, which created a mysterious unknown for many of us, begging the question ‘will the show go on?’ In light of the events surrounding Shambhala, beginning with the pre-evacuation order announced on Thursday to the official call on Saturday afternoon that Sunday would be cancelled, to the festival continuing with Sunday ‘as planned and on a revised schedule,’ we wanted to bring clarity to this roller coaster ride, and a full-circle perspective that sheds light on the realities of running a major music festival.
Here is a hard lined reality for any music festival: the safety of its people comes first. Full stop. If you were in the driver’s seat having to make a call on whether to risk the lives of 17,000 people or simply keep everyone safe by cancelling a day early, you’re going to always err on public safety. Always. For those that were on site, the air quality on Thursday and Friday was so poor that you were lucky to see 50m in front of you due to smoke from the fires. So bad in fact that free inhalers were provided to those suffering from asthma and anyone having problems breathing could visit first aid for oxygen. It was a very serious situation, so let’s not forget that.
Let’s look at a timeline of events leading up to Saturday, August 13, at 3 pm, when the official call was made to cancel Sunday.
Thursday, August 11: Shambhala + Nelson on pre-evacuation alert
Friday, August 12: McCormick Creek wildfire growing in size, regardless of a full-blown attempt by 37 forest fire fighters, four helicopters, and six pieces of heavy equipment to control it. The fire was located only 9km from the festival site and was 3.5 square kilometers in size.
Saturday, August 13: The Regional District of Central Kootenay issued the evacuation alert Saturday morning, saying the McCormick Creek wildfire had jumped the Salmo River and was moving toward the festival.
Saturday, August 13: Shambhala Music Festival announces at 3 pm that it will continue Saturday’s schedule as planned, however, Sunday will be cancelled.
Here is the official statement from Shambhala:
“Due to the McCormick Creek wildlife and after consulting with the local government Shambhala Music Festival Ltd. has decided to issue an early closure this year. While there is no immediate threat to the festival or its attendees, we believe it to be in everyone’s best interest to allow adequate time to vacate the area safely.
Programming for Saturday evening will continue as planned, however, we encourage guests to make necessary preparations for an efficient exit of the site by getting a head start on packing up their campsite and belongings. Necessary camping equipment may remain in place and can be moved during the exit procedures.
In order to maintain order while vacating, we would ask our guests to:
- Begin to pack your vehicle
- Remain sober
- Designate a driver
- Remain calm
- Be well rested
- Plan your route home
As there are multiple wildfires in the area local emergency services have asked that everyone head straight home and not to linger in the area.”
So let’s review: the fire was growing in size, located a mere 9km from the event and the Government issued an evacuation alert on Saturday morning. It’s no doubt that Shambhala had to follow suit based on the safety of its people and to allow attendees to sober up, pack-up and get out without complete chaos.
Shambhala wasn’t the only festival this summer who received evacuation orders. Rock am Ring in Germany was evacuated and shut down in June 2017 due to terrorist threats. Tomorrowland in Barcelona was also evacuated due to a stage fire, and Moonrise Festival in Maryland was evacuated and then reopened (just like Shambhala) due to thunderstorms. So you see, it’s not like Shambhala is the only event in 2017 to go through an evacuation order. Moonrise Festival held the same weekend of Shambhala was also evacuated and then re-opened. So let’s explore why the call was reversed…
Reversing the call
On Sunday, August 14, 2017, sometime in the wee hours of the morning, organizers had learned that the McCormick Creek fire had been successfully contained and was no longer a direct threat. One of two choices now had to be made:
- Maintain the evacuation order and keep Sunday cancelled
- Announce Sunday would go on as planned
We have a saying in show business, ‘the show must go on,’ and while that might make some of you angry, put yourself in the organizer’s shoes for a minute. It took 20 long years to build up an event without corporate money, without liquor sales, without massive financial contributions from angel investors. Shambhala is a no bullshit festival. This event exists solely by the support, dedication, hard work and love from a community of people who believe in this event. Millions of hours are invested each year to build Shambhala, and to be told that on your 20th birthday that your finale is cancelled, well that’s just devastating. Shambhala 2017 was a HUGE MILESTONE in Canadian festival history and due to a forest fire completely out of the festival’s control, organizers had no choice but to rule on the side of caution and cancel Sunday.
When the local government announced that the fire was contained, what the hell do you think organizers would do? Simply let the 20th anniversary Sunday be extinguished? Fuck that. Let Sunday get as lit as possible and celebrate the fact that the final day of the event was back on. Sure it was an emotional rollercoaster, and the schedule was a bit of a labyrinth to navigate with performances shifted and cancelled, but it was a Shambhala Sunday never to be forgotten.
For those who left on Saturday night or early Sunday morning – that sucks, and we are sorry. We sympathize wholeheartedly with you, and understand that the evacuation announcement was a very scary and real reality that made some of you hightail it out of the farm. Social media posts on Sunday and Monday were pretty hard to read, with many of you angry and upset with the festival’s decision to continue on Sunday – we get it, but also understand Shambhala organizers were in a very tough position.
Refunds and Discounts:
Logistically it is impossible for the festival to issue refunds, so stop asking for them. No one can determine who stayed or left on Sunday, so let’s just put that one to rest. Discounts for next year are also impossible, so let us say this:
You are apart of Shambhala. This festival was built by you and thousands of others. This event has fostered lifelong friendships and lovers, has given us a platform to celebrate music, art, creation and what it means to be human. This is a space that has been a leader in harm reduction, sexual education, electronic music, and a safe space for all races and genders to revel and celebrate what it means to be a community. So instead of pointing fingers and sharing angry words online, perhaps after 20 years, it is now our turn to take one for the Shambhala Team. Yeah, life isn’t always fair, but neither are forest fires. I think we can all agree on one thing: the farm is still standing and we are all safe, ready to celebrate year #21 in 2018.