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Amid wildfires, music events reassess safety and sustainability

FILE - Flames from the Donnie Creek wildfire burn along a ridge top north of Fort St. John, British Columbia, on July 2, 2023. At about summer's halfway point, the record-breaking heat and weather extremes are both unprecedented and unsurprising, hellish yet boring in some ways, scientists say.
Noah Berger
FILE - Flames from the Donnie Creek wildfire burn along a ridge top north of Fort St. John, British Columbia, on July 2, 2023. At about summer's halfway point, the record-breaking heat and weather extremes are both unprecedented and unsurprising, hellish yet boring in some ways, scientists say.

During a summer marked by unprecedented wildfires, British Columbia (B.C.) and eastern Washington faced immense challenges. On August 18, a state of emergency was declared in B.C., resulting in over 30,000 evacuations. Concurrently, eastern Washington witnessed six significant fires, notably the Gray Fire, which devastated over 10,820 acres and razed 240 homes.

As these disasters profoundly impacted local communities, they notably disrupted the regional music events scene, a major boon to local economies in the summer months.

This August, due to the fires and deteriorating air quality, numerous music events faced cancellations, postponements, or evacuations, incurring a significant economic toll. As music organizers pick up the pieces, they’re considering how to better adapt their events and venues to the worsening wildfire threat.

From music education to an evacuation

During the week of August 13, the annual jazz music camp BC Swing Camp held at the Sorrento Centre in south-central B.C. had to quickly adapt when the nearby Adams Lake Fire severely affected air quality. Classes and performances were shifted indoors, necessitating the Centre incur the extra expense of renting an indoor community center.

“There was a very present danger of smoke, especially coming out of COVID with folks’ lungs and systems being compromised already,” said Ali Romanow, a Vancouver Island-based musician and educator who teaches at BC Swing Camp.

On August 18, as the fires intensified, attendees decided to vacate the camp, and later that evening, the Sorrento Centre itself came under an evacuation order.

“The day that we evacuated BC Swing Camp, was also the day that the fire came over the hill," Michael Shapcott, the Centre's executive director, recalled. "We could see the flames quite close to us, less than a couple of kilometers away.”

After evacuating BC Swing Camp and his employees, Shapcott made the tough call to cancel the following two weeks of NimbleFingers, a bluegrass camp and festival held at their site that attracts upwards of 1,500 people to the area. Just down the road, the remainder of the four-day Salmon Arms Roots & Blues festival, another regional music event that brings in nearly 30,000 people, was also canceled.

Music events in other parts of B.C. and eastern Washington were also compromised due to wildfires throughout August. Notably, the Under the Stars Music Festival near Kelowna, B.C. was evacuated and the Music on the Mountain Festival in Fort St. James, B.C. was relocated. Concerts near Spokane, Wash., including a Boys II Men show at the Northern Quest Casino, were postponed or canceled.

As the dust settles, event organizers are grieving for their communities and reassessing their strategies for the safety and sustainability of their events.

Adapting to 'fire season'

Arbor Crest Winery, which has been hosting summer concerts on their grounds just east of Spokane since 2000, had to cancel their August 20 Soul Proprietor show due to alarming air quality levels. Since 2018, they have had a protocol in place to cancel an outdoor event if the AQI is worse than 200.

Kristina van Loben Sels, the winery's CEO, emphasized the health and safety rationale and noted that they are having to adapt to their clients’ changing preferences because of the fire season.

“What is interesting is our clients have made adjustments,” van Loben Sels said. “Our weddings, they actually choose July, they don't really want August anymore, whereas August used to be the prime month.”

Similarly, Under the Stars Music Festival has decided to move from August to May, when fire risk is much lower. They’re also working to bolster their safety protocols and communication with emergency services going forward.

Romanow had a similar takeaway. After evacuating from BC Swing Camp, Romanow traveled to another B.C.-based music camp, SongRoots, where they serve as camp logistics and transportation manager. Romanow came in with robust contingency plans, created a central notice board for safety information, and designated one member of the administrative team to keep up with the outside world.

“We're creating these beautiful little bubbles in time, little utopias, but I think now we need to be more aware of what’s happening around us, and sharing that with campers," they said.

Salmon Arm Roots and Blues is taking proactive steps too, such as looking at adding and improving hydration stations and cooling rooms to combat growing summertime heat concerns.

The Sorrento Centre, after being evacuated for over a week and losing $35,000 worth of food, plans to reopen September 14. Shapcott is evaluating options, like adding more air conditioners, to cope with the changing climate conditions. For Shapcott, the last few weeks have underscored the reality of climate change and his commitment to making Sorrento Centre, which is already environmentally conscious, even greener.

“We've always known that there's a direct line between human-induced climate change and extreme weather,” Shapcott said. “This was an urgent confirmation that we need to take action. It is very real, and it is having a very profound impact.”

Ways to donate to those affected by wildfires

To support relief organizations, check out the links below:

And check out these links to directly support the music events and venues affected by the wildfires:

Editor's note: The author is an active member of the BC Swing music camp community.

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on arts & culture. Her journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Downbeat, and The Seattle Times, among others. She’s currently co-authoring a book on the Seattle jazz community with jazz critic Paul de Barros, due to be published by The History Press in 2026.