As it turned out, the power outage which temporarily silenced the ROOTSandBLUES Festival on Friday night was just a rehearsal for what was to come.
On Saturday morning, Aug. 19, festival organizers made the decision to cancel the rest of the event, which was set to wrap up Sunday night with Canadian icon Sarah McLachlan on the Main Stage.
Cancelling the festival was the right thing to do, said ROOTSandBLUES spokesperson Althea Mongerson on Saturday morning, as staff, vendors, volunteers and more got on with the work of dismantling structures and vacating the Salmon Arm fairgrounds.
All the while, a grim veil of wildfire smoke hung over the previously lively site, with several people wearing N95 masks to protect their respiratory systems.
“The community has been really supportive,” Mongerson said. “It was definitely the right decision. Not only for our community in Salmon Arm and the Shuswap, but for our volunteers and for our staff on site.”
David Gonella, executive director with the Salmon Arm Folk Music Society (SAFMS), also emphasized safety in a message to those affected.
“The SAFMS follows a ‘safety first’ approach to ensure our patrons, volunteers and community health and safety is a priority. Cancelling the 31st annual ROOTSandBLUES was a difficult decision to make and one we did not take lightly.”
Gonella explained that as communities in the North and South Shuswap were facing evacuation orders and alerts, and following direct communication with local fire officials and the RCMP, “the society made the difficult decision Saturday morning.”
Meanwhile, ticket sales for the popular festival had been excellent. Mongerson, the festival’s marketing and sponsorship coordinator, described lead-up ticket sales as “incredible,” possibly surpassing 2022, although final numbers were not available.
Last Thursday evening, an enthusiastic crowd had filled Alexander Street downtown to hear a free pre-festival concert.
But on Friday night, a transmission line failure knocked out power throughout the region, including the fairgrounds in Salmon Arm. After about two hours, power was restored.
The return of electricity brought with it the energy of La Dame Blanche to the Boogie Barn, along with Blue Rodeo to the Main Stage. Both delighted enthusiastic crowds before the festival was shut down for the night.
In its message to festivalgoers, the folk music society promised “to be in contact with ticket holders with more information in the coming weeks. Thank you for your patience and understanding. We look forward to seeing you all again soon.”
A sampling of people packing up Saturday morning at the festival site expressed approval for the decision to cancel, but one person who wrote to the Observer on Friday, the day before the cancellation, said it didn’t happen soon enough.
Eve Fortier’s letter called it a dangerous decision not to have cancelled the festival sooner, saying it left people trapped in Salmon Arm, staying in hotels that could have been used for evacuated locals.
“I know people who got there and wanted to turn back to Vancouver, but roads are jammed and blocked. They are now trapped in Salmon Arm because no one warned them to turn back.”
Rick Harper, who lives in Calgary and has been volunteering as a stage manager at the festival for 15 years, made reference to ancient Rome.
“We’re happy to have had the music that we got to witness. But we feel for the residents, those affected by the fire. There were so many, it seems kind of like fiddling while Rome burns if we continue. So we understand.”
With emotion in his voice, Harper said the cancellation is heartbreaking.
And “of course” was his answer when asked if he’d be back next year.
Annie Williams, who is head supervisor of visitor information along with her sister Donna, was very disappointed with the cancellation but in full agreement with the decision.
She said she communicates with some of the performers beforehand and the festival is a chance to say hi.
“Just the whole atmosphere of the festival…I look forward every year to volunteering, seeing all the number of volunteers that come back, and the new ones we get in our station…
“To me this is really emotional. I love it, I love the live music. It’s one thing to see them on videos on the screens but it’s another thing to see them live, to feel their vibe. To feel everything that they’re saying, that they’re doing, every note they hit.”
Yet, she said, “I fully agree with the decision because we need the safety of everyone. Performers, volunteers, vendors, staff, everywhere.”
Over at the campground across from the fairgrounds, festivalgoers were packing up.
Festival vendor Lena Rainer, co-owner of the Salt Lick BBQ from Darfield, north of Kamloops, said the cancellation is hard but understandable.
“The safety of the community is so much more important than our business…It’s a little bit heartbreaking because it’s such a great event. We were here last year – it was wonderful.”
Michel Schacht and Marcia Geary came all the way from Winnipeg for the festival. On the way they met up with Debbie Turnbull, a friend from Pinantan Lake north of Kamloops.
“I get it, somebody had to call it…it affects everybody. You’ve gotta be safe,” said Schacht.
Despite the disappointment of the cancellation on Saturday, this won’t be her last trip to ROOTSandBLUES. “We had a couple of campers come by and say, don’t be discouraged, make sure you come back. I’m planning on coming back. It was a lovely show yesterday.”
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