A smaller, fireworks-free event at Fort Vancouver will replace the Independence Day fireworks extravaganza this summer after two years of cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Historic Trust on Tuesday announced the change, citing rising costs, scarce resources, wildfire risk and uncertainties wrought by the pandemic. The nonprofit organization will collaborate with the National Park Service and the city of Vancouver on a new community-picnic-style event called Summer Fest that may permanently replace the annual fireworks show.
“People’s memory of the Fourth of July isn’t necessarily the red chrysanthemum firework. It’s the time spent together as a family. We haven’t been able to do that for two years,” said Amy VanCamp, director of marketing and events for The Historic Trust. “If we can be true to the memory of the tradition without putting pressure on the resources around us, let’s make that be the new memory.”
Summer Fest will begin at 11 a.m. July 3 at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site parade grounds. The free event will feature live music, lawn games, a cornhole tournament, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, rides in military vehicles, food vendors and beer tastings outside the Grant House on Officers Row. Families can bring their own picnics or purchase meals on site. A free family movie (not yet determined) will begin at dusk.
VanCamp said that the decision to cancel the Fourth of July celebration was not taken lightly. After months of discussion and debate, the trust and its partners concluded that the “community” element of the event is what matters most.
That’s not so different from Vancouver’s past Independence Day festivities, VanCamp said. Fourth of July celebrations used to be organized by civic groups like the Lions Club and held on the parade grounds at Fort Vancouver because it was large enough to accommodate a crowd, she said.
The first Fort Vancouver fireworks show took place in 1963. The event grew into Vancouver’s signature gathering. At its height, the event attracted crowds of 60,000 to the fort’s parade grounds and thousands more to surrounding areas. Before the pandemic, the fireworks show had only been canceled one other time — in 2009 due to the Great Recession.
The Historic Trust undertook planning for Fourth of July festivities sometime after its incorporation in 1998, VanCamp said, in partnership with the city of Vancouver and the National Park Service at Fort Vancouver.
“Everything changed over the last two years,” VanCamp said. She pointed to challenges like record high summer temperatures, local population growth and the 10 to 12 months needed for planning.
“The impact on resources is a big deal for this event,” VanCamp said. “We’d normally have 180 security officers and police out here for the Fourth of July. They’re just not there anymore. The community has changed so much that it’s just not the best place for them to be. Cost, time, staff, people — it’s completely different.”
Aside from the pandemic, which necessitated nixing the Independence Day fireworks show for two consecutive years, it was becoming increasingly problematic to produce an event of such size and scope, VanCamp said.
To offset costs in years past, the trust experimented with admission fees and a parking charge. Today, inflation and staffing shortages have turned pre-pandemic logistical challenges into practical impossibilities, VanCamp said.
“What’s important to me is the gathering element of it all. I really want the park here to be kind of like our living room or the city’s backyard,” VanCamp said. “I want it to be positive. I want it to be a celebration of our resilience, of all our efforts and hard work and the wins and losses that have happened to all of us.”
As to whether the change will be permanent, that’s still — like a burst of fireworks — up in the air.
“The city, the Historic Trust and the National Park Service has to convene and figure that out,” VanCamp said. “We just don’t know yet, but it is a conversation that we all need to have.”
For more details about Summer Fest, visit www.thehistorictrust.org.