BRADLEY COOK/FLASHBOX STUDIO

As fireworks explode above, a brush fire gains intensity during the Creswell Chamber of Commerce fireworks show Sunday, July 4, on the old Bald Knob Mill property along Highway 99.

Note: This story was updated at 5:10 p.m., Wednesday, July 7

CRESWELL – The City’s annual Fourth of July celebration was a source of consternation and controversy in the months leading up to its on again-off again, official and unofficial festivities. Less than 30 minutes into the culminating Chamber of Commerce-sponsored fireworks show, things took a dramatic turn.

The Chamber’s fireworks show – the result of a determined board president and cooperation of city leaders – ended with a brush fire after a drifting ember landed in a thicket of blackberry bushes in downtown Creswell. 

At 10:10 p.m. Sunday, South Lane County Fire & Rescue responded to a brush fire at South Mill Street and East Park Drive. The fire broke out near the old Bald Knob Mill property, which played host to the newly revived Creswell Chamber’s fireworks show. 

Flames became visible from the vantage point on Front Street where dozens gathered in the dark on the hoods of their cars and in truck beds. Simultaneously and for several minutes, fireworks burst into the air while the fire ignited nearby. 

The show was only half over before Chamber president Bobby Langley pulled the plug on the show and fire trucks rolled in.

SLCF&R division chief Aaron Smith, just before midnight that night, said the fire covered 1 1/4 acres, but did not affect traffic on I-5, even though the fire could be seen clearly from the interstate. Smith said that there was very little wind that night and that kept the fire from spreading. According to the fire call log, firefighters finished up on the scene at 3 a.m. Monday. 

BRADLEY COOK/FLASHBOX STUDIO

An SLCF&R firefighter stands in silhouette as a brush fire spreads during the early portion of the Creswell Chamber of Commerce’s Fourth of July fireworks show. There were two other fires occurring around Creswell at the same time.

Requests to speak with any representative from SLCF&R regarding its approval of the show and response to the fires in Creswell were denied. The Chronicle was told that no one from the fire district was available to comment Tuesday.

Heather Gobet, president of Western Display Fireworks, spoke to The Chronicle on Tuesday.

“It was a comedy of errors,” said Gobet, who contracted with the Chamber for the fireworks display. “One of the fireworks performed not as designed;ait broke in the worst possible place and landed in some berry bushes. Under normal circumstances, it would have been just fine … it was a perfect storm of things that didn’t work out.”

More pointedly, Gobet said the Creswell School District leadership team must take some responsibility for the outcome. While acknowledging that her fireworks company takes part of the responsibility – and will not charge the Chamber for the full price of the show – she said CSD was negligent for not allowing the company to use its property as a launching site as it has done traditionally.

“We take a considerable amount of the blame and are taking responsibility financially,” she said. “But … I think that everybody’s got to learn from this.

“The Creswell School District is at least 50% to blame for this whole situation with (Western Display Fireworks) taking the other 50% … The school district became very, very heavy handed. I think that there was a way that they could have handled this and been supportive of the Chamber and the community … Even if they didn’t want to have fireworks on their property, they could have at least let the fireworks show move forward on their property.”

Creswell Chamber president Bobby Ladley told The Chronicle on Wednesday afternoon that it was not fair to criticize the school district's decision regarding the fireworks launch site.

"I haven't had a chance to speak to Heather, but I don't understand how the school district got in this at all and I really need to clarify what was stated," he said by phone. "I feel like that statement is grossly misleading. The school board was under strict covid protocols that were out of its control; that was something that's mandated to them. And you know, they still remain under stricter protocols than the general public."

Ladley said he spoke with CSD officials several times in the weeks leading up to the event, but "the strict restrictions just never relaxed enough for them to be able to do it."

Bald Knob, a former veneer mill site, is located west of Interstate 5 and stretches from behind TJ’s Restaurant on East Oregon Avenue to South Mill Street near the railroad tracks. A major fire in 2008 permanently closed the mill site. New owner Daniel Basarabra, who also owns and is renovating the former Super 8 motel nearby, offered his property for Chamber use after learning that the school district would not host the event this year due to covid safety concerns. 

“We did the best we could with what we had … The best and safest place to execute the show was from the site we’ve always used. The school district wouldn’t allow that, so there we go,” Gobet said.

CSD superintendent Mike Johnson declined comment when contacted Tuesday by The Chronicle. 

Well before the Chamber’s efforts to revive the traditional fireworks show, wildfire danger has been a concern in the county. Most of the state is in extreme or high fire risk, with Lane County in the latter. Several counties and municipalities across the state put restrictions in place around using fireworks through the holiday weekend. Danny Solesbee, fire marshal, approved the Chamber’s request to host the event in May, saying then that he would be onsite as a resource if needed. 

BRADLEY COOK/FLASHBOX STUDIO

Before the brush fire near Highway 99, the fireworks show drew a contingent of cars, trucks and pedestrians along S. Mill St. and Front St. to watch the spectacular show.

Ladley said that Chamber volunteers followed all protocols required of SLCF&R and that volunteers spent four hours watering down the property earlier that day and were on active fire watch. 

“The Chamber is just innocent in the whole thing,” Gobet said. “Bobby (Ladley) and the Chamber need to get a lot of credit for trying to navigate this ongoing mess and try to carry out the event for the community.” Gobet said the pre-show watering might have been executed too early.

According to SLCF&R’s fire service contract, firework display supervision falls on the police and fire departments of the City. The fireworks themselves, the display site, discharge site, spectator viewing areas, parking areas, and fallout areas all needed to be inspected.

The District and law enforcement could have postponed the display to a later date if “adverse conditions exist that significantly affect safety, there is a lack of crowd control that poses a danger, or high winds, precipitation, or other adverse weather conditions prevail that significant safety danger exists,” according to the contract.

ERIN TIERNEY/CHRONICLE PHOTO

Fireworks were prevalent all over Creswell beyond the Chamber of Commerce’s official display. Here, a large firework is set off near Northwest Automotive Customs on Highway 99.

Fire call logs show that other fires broke out across town that night, including brush fires near Sears and East Cloverdale roads and on Dale Kuni Road.

Gobet said that Western Display Fireworks had 10 last-minute cancelations throughout Oregon and Washington, and still conducted over 100 firework displays between July 3-4 on property that ranged from dry fields to golf courses.

Read more about the parade here.