Kids Parade winner
BEST CUPCAKE Daisy Atterbury, seen here with her parents Kit and Kala Atterbury, was a winner at last week’s Kids Fourth of July Parade, in the Best Costume (cupcake) category. The Kids Parade and Duck Dash went on as scheduled, but the fireworks show that evening was canceled. (Photo by Rick Tang)

As more than 2,000 people crowded the Healdsburg Plaza on Thursday morning, July 4, to celebrate the holiday with a Kids Parade and an all-comers Duck Dash, a record-breaking celebration seemed in the works.

The previous afternoon*, the news broke over Healdsburg that afternoon like a non-incendiary bombshell, but it wasn’t a dud: The City had canceled the fireworks show scheduled to begin that evening shortly after the sun went down.

“Due to current fire weather conditions in the region, we have made the difficult decision not to move forward with the fireworks show scheduled for the evening of the 4th,” read the message the City posted about 1:30pm on Wednesday.

“With a red flag warning in place for parts of Sonoma County and multiple active fire incidents in the region, we have concluded that we can’t proceed with sufficient confidence that the safety of the community will be protected,” the message from City Clerk Raina Allen continued.

Needless to say, the decision was not greeted with universal enthusiasm. Comments on Facebook were split, with very little middle ground. They varied from “Wrong decision. Adding to the list of reasons to move” (Janell O’Connor) to “Very necessary! We don’t need another fire!” (Jazn Jaimee).

Tenaya Fleckenstein wrote, “Many of the local resources were sent to other fires in our neighboring counties and regardless of what you might think we had less available exhausted firefighters than usual. Healdsburg CAL FIRE had to contract with a local engine to staff behind an engine that day, which meant another station was short as well.”

Robert Herrick succinctly termed the decision “BS,” then elaborated, “Simple, other towns, such as Windsor, had no issues with their fireworks shows. It was merely a fear based decision.”

It’s true that other towns did move forward with their plans for city fireworks last week—including Cloverdale, although its city manager suspended the sale of so-called “safe and sane” fireworks for personal use last week. In Napa County, however, both Yountville and St. Helena canceled their scheduled pyrotechnic displays this year, again citing concerns about wildfires.

Healdsburg city staff were unapologetic. “Ultimately, the decision was mine, but it was made in consultation with our executive team and the Fire and Police Chiefs in particular,” said City Manager Jeff Kay.

“When looking at the totality of the conditions—a Red Flag Warning in significant portions of the county, an excessive heat warning, reports of extremely low fuel moisture and the prevalence of significant fire incidents in the region that were drawing firefighting resources out of Sonoma County—we did not have sufficient confidence that we could respond effectively if an incident were to take place locally during the show,” Kay continued.

Breaking with Tradition

It was the first time in memory that a Healdsburg Fourth of July fireworks show was canceled, though they did not take place during the Covid pandemic due to prohibitions against crowds.

Fireworks
INCANDESCENT The random patterns of a fireworks display over Healdsburg in 2019, seen from Badger Street.

The traditional fireworks show, sponsored and organized by American Legion Post 111, is launched from the high school playing fields, with several streets in the area blocked to traffic so people can gather to watch the show. As Kay explained, this was a major factor in the cancellation.

“Our concern wasn’t necessarily that the fireworks from the official show would cause a significant fire—this is very unlikely—but that the presence of the crowds and all of the necessary logistical support would inhibit our ability to respond to any type of emergency situation,” he said.

Since Healdsburg prohibits personal use of fireworks by law, any fireworks heard or seen that night were illegal. Police Chief Matt Jenkins reported that while there were local complaints of illegal fireworks July 4, the number was not out of the ordinary.

“We had four reports of illegal fireworks on the Fourth,” he told the Tribune. “In each instance, the fireworks had ceased prior to officers arriving.”

He added, “In looking over the logs for the weekend, it appears that the calls [were] similar to a typical summer weekend.”

Cost of Change

The fireworks show cost an estimated $40,000, much of which came from the City’s Community Services Fund. The last-minute cancellation did come at a cost, albeit a relatively small one.

“We have an option to reschedule the show for a 15% additional fee. We would also incur some additional costs for fencing and traffic control,” Kay said. “Looking at dates deeper into fire season obviously brings some risk that the same thing might happen again.”

Said Councilmember Chris Herrod, “I assumed we would have received more negative response, but I received a very large number of emails (and comments on social media) expressing support for the decision, for putting safety first and relief that there would not be fireworks during such an extreme weather event.”

Herrod lives a block from Healdsburg High School and thus enjoys an enviable view of Fourth of July pyrotechnics when they happen.

Like others, Herrod floated the idea of a non-incendiary drone show for future Independence Day celebrations. The city of Napa took that course this year, with 400 drones creating various three-dimensional formations over the Oxbow Commons area near the city’s center.

Napa’s city manager’s office estimated 24,000 people saw the 15-minute program. Other Bay Area communities with drone shows for the Fourth of July include Alameda, Brentwood, Pleasanton and San Pablo.

Based on feedback he received, Herrod suggested moving the traditional fireworks show from mid-summer to mid-winter, with a New Year’s Eve celebration.

A year-end show taking place after sundown would begin much earlier in the evening—sundown on Dec. 31 occurs just after 5pm. On the other hand, a midnight fireworks show on New Year’s Eve could create its own controversy.

The idea of moving to a drone show seemed welcome by some. Indeed, Kay pointed out that in March, “the Council added an item to their adopted FY24-25 goals to discuss options for alternatives to a traditional fireworks show. That discussion could include drones.”

For now, the City and the contractor, Pyro Spectaculars, plan a meeting this week to discuss ways to move forward with a fireworks show under the current contract. Otherwise, the full $40,000 will be lost, in addition to the $6,000 cancellation fee.

The City Council won’t meet again until August, and any council discussion of “alternatives to the traditional fireworks show” might not happen until September or later. And any discussion would necessarily include public comment. Given the loud reaction to the cancellation of this year’s show, that public comment is sure to include its own fireworks.

  • * An earlier version of this story gave the erroneous impression that the fireworks were canceled on July 4; it was July 3.

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Christian Kallen has called Healdsburg home for over 30 years. A former travel writer and web producer, he has worked with Microsoft, Yahoo, MSNBC and other media companies, usually in an editorial capacity. He started reporting locally in 2008, moving from Patch to the Sonoma Index-Tribune to the Kenwood Press before joining the Healdsburg Tribune in 2022.

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