Sonic Bloom festival planned in Huerfano County sparks wildfire concerns among residents
Some people headed to Southern Colorado next month for a music festival will be allowed to camp for an extra night despite local concern over wildfires.
Huerfano County commissioners on Tuesday approved the additional night of outdoor camping for attendees of the Sonic Bloom electronic dance music festival. Residents were worried about potential fire danger during the 4-day event.
The three-member board voted 2-1 in favor of the move, which allows a portion of the estimated 7,000 festival attendees to check into the event the evening of June 15. A group of residents testified against the move, saying the extension goes against county rules and would exacerbate fire risk in a region that has already been bombarded with blazes this year.
“We live in fear of fire,” said Ronald Sedillo, whose family owns a ranch near the festival venue. “I have never understood how we can bring an event like this to an area that is designated for agriculture and raising animals.”
Those concerns echo similar worries around other large gatherings planned for Colorado’s dry foothills and forested areas this summer, including the planned 30,000-attendee Rainbow Gathering in Grand County. Organizers for Sonic Bloom say they’ve held the event in Huerfano County many times and understand the fire risks associated with large outdoor gatherings.
Nearly 85 percent of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans who leave campfires unattended, throw cigarette butts on the ground or set fire intentionally, among other actions, according to the National Park Service.
Recent fires in Southern Colorado were linked to humans, including a sheriff’s vehicle that drove through a grassy field while responding to a call. Another started from a resident’s outdoor fire pit. Some are still under investigation, but none so far have been connected to large outdoor gatherings.
“We care about our patrons and our neighbors. We want to run a safe event,” said Jess Gries, an attorney for the festival, during the commissioners’ meeting. “We pay attention to these things.”
Organizers of Sonic Bloom, which is scheduled to take place June 16-19, pursued the additional night of camping to help ease traffic flow on the festival’s opening day, Gries said. In preparation for heightened fire conditions, the team rented a 300-gallon emergency water pump truck to have on standby.
They plan to equip all staff with golf carts and fire extinguishers. Organizers also set designated smoking areas and will enforce industry-standard safety protocols for artists who use fire during their performances, Gries said. Security will enforce a strict no-burn rule in attendee camping areas.
Grass in the rangeland where attendees camp out during the event will also get mowed down and sprayed with water, depending on the weather.
“We start with the assumption that there are going to be stage two fire restrictions in place,” Gries said. “We'd rather not use the water if conditions don't don't require it, but if they do that's something we're gonna do in the name of safety.”
The music and arts festival started as a small annual gathering at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre in the Poudre Canyon over a decade ago. As the event grew in popularity and size, organizers moved it to the Hummingbird Ranch near Rye in 2015. (Jamie Janover, the festival’s co-founder, also owns the ranch land).
It now features a lineup of yoga, speakers and arts activities, in addition to music performances. Attendees usually camp out for the entirety of the festival.
Huerfano commissioners approved the main permits for this year’s event months ago. It will be the first time the festival has happened since 2019, due to the pandemic.
During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners questioned Gries about the festival’s need for an additional night of camping prior to the festival. Ultimately, county staff recommended approving their request on the condition organizers add a few fire safety measures and hold off on loud sound testing until the official start of the festival.
“Hopefully this will cut down on traffic,” said Commissioner Gerald Cisneros.
One commissioner, John Galusha, voted against the expanded permit, calling it a “clear attempt” to skirt county regulations that cap large event durations at four days.
During public comment, residents questioned the finer details of Sonic Bloom’s preparations and fire mitigation plans. They pointed out that the festival plans to use portable generators to power lighting, which they called a fire hazard. They also sought evacuation plan information.
“I see that it is a critical piece of public safety and I haven’t seen that information,” said Joan Malley, a local resident who lives near the venue. “Grass fires can move over 14 miles an hour.”
Gries, the festival’s attorney, said during the meeting that the festival has a comprehensive evacuation plan utilizing the ranch’s main entry and exit road. A backup road could also be used as an escape route, he said.
“We would be using our, our parking staff and other staff to move cars out in a stream if for some reason our main exit was compromised,” Gries said.
“We have the advantage of thousands of eyes,” Gries said. “If there is ignition, that's noticed pretty quick and the response happens quickly.”
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