American Legion leaders in Cambria have determined that a combination of factors led the mishaps during the Fourth of July fireworks show at Shamel Park.
The usual 20-minute, professionally presented fireworks show turned into a nine-minute fusillade Thursday that relocated hundreds of celebrants at the park and left some of them confused and pelted by ash and small pieces of spent fireworks.
So far, according to research done by various sources from American Legion Post No. 432 — who had no input into or control over the original circumstances — the problems apparently stemmed from the following factors:
New pyrotechnic on the job
For years, the same expert from Pyro Spectaculars had set up and shot off Cambria’s fireworks display. But this year, she wasn’t available. This was the first time the firm’s subcontracted stand-in had worked on this show.
The new man reportedly considered the incoming 6.3 high tide at midnight, and, according to fire officials, set up the pyrotechnics’ racks too close to where the crowds historically stand in the park to watch the show.
“The zone of exclusion,” according to Legion Post Cmdr. Phil Kispersky, “is apparently 250 feet from the point of ignition to humanity.”
And there simply wasn’t that much space between people in the park and the fireworks.
Show almost shut down
Fire marshals Joe Gibson and his boss, Spencer Meyer, and Cambria Fire Chief William Hollingsworth almost shut things down because of those and other issues, based on state law, Hollingsworth said later. The officials ultimately settled for some abrupt last-minute changes, such as moving all the people farther away from the fireworks setup (down to the bottom of the grassy hill), with the new location considering wind direction and other factors.
The celebrants were almost universally cooperative, according to emcee George Gray and others who herded the people farther inland. The upbeat end to the initial stand-off was reflected in “the smile on the fire marshal’s face and him thanking us for working so hard to get the people moved,” past post commander Jay Burbank said. “We tried to do everything that they asked us to do. I think that’s what saved us from getting shut down.”
This apparently was the first time Cambria’s fireworks were launched electronically, rather than being shot off manually, and there appeared to be an equipment malfunction that produced, as Gray described it later, a brisk “nine minutes of fireworks bliss” instead of the usual 20-minute-or-so pattern with a measured buildup to a finale.
The equipment failure left slightly more than 100 of the fireworks unlaunched, according to Burbank. He said in a July 9 phone interview that the legion board had met that day to discuss the problems and contacted Pyro Spectaculars to make sure the fireworks firm was fully aware of the issues.
“I think everything will be OK” eventually, Burbank said. “We’re in kiss-and-make-up mode now. They were almost in tears over it all, and they’re taking back all the fireworks that weren’t spent.”
The conversation will continue with the firm to resolve ongoing issues, Kispersky said.
Mixed reviews online
Later that night and over the holiday weekend, viewer reviews on social media ranged from brickbats to bouquets, from saying the show “sucked” to “Fantastic show! Thank you to those that underwrote the bulk of the expense and to all who dropped a few bucks in the bucket ... a true community effort ... we thoroughly enjoyed it!”
Kispersky said that after this year’s experiences, the legion is implementing some checks and balances to make sure there’s no repeat of the problems and “our goal is to make next year’s show better ... and longer.”
Because 2020 is a leap year, July 4 falls on a Saturday.
“We deeply thank the sponsors and the incredibly generous people of Cambria for their donations and their understanding,” the commander said.
Those sponsors included Linn’s for their Cambria restaurants and gift shops; Daou Winery for wines and restaurant (for the current Daou Mountain Vineyard and Winery in Adelaide and the eventual Daou Ocean facility); Bob Kasper/The Real Estate Company of Cambria and Harvey’s Honey Huts, a 37-year donor to the event.
Cleanup draws another crowd
Early the next day, a horde of people showed up at the park and the beach, many with their own trash bags and equipment in hand, to help clean up after the celebration.
The groups that arrived in several waves of enthusiasm included scouts, the Coast Union High School football team, people from the countywide ECOSLO group and dedicated year-round beach tidiers like Elizabeth Bettenhausen.
The cleanup work continued on several subsequent mornings. When it was done, Burbank said, “it was so clean, it was like the beach and the park had a manicure.”