I was the unfortunate soul who was handed the reins of the City of Adelaide’s media relations function over the Christmas / New Year period in 2019. Our regular media guys were due for a break and I put my hand up to carry the can over what is typically a fairly quiet period.
Normally the job entails some routine media conferences and arranging some interviews ahead of the City of Adelaide’s New Year’s Eve fireworks, and that’s about it. In past years it has been a plain-sailing gig, sweetened by a few VIP passes for the New Year’s Eve event.
But this year was a different, because all hell had broken loose in the form of major bushfires in the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island over Christmas, with several fatalities and a huge loss of property. The whole country was on edge with even bigger bushfires in NSW and Victoria.
With the fires burning in SA and interstate, holding a major fireworks display to celebrate the New Year became a very controversial thing. Sydney was close to cancelling its iconic fireworks display, and several metropolitan and regional centres in NSW chose not to proceed with their pyrotechnics celebrations.
Despite calls to cancel the Adelaide event by several city councillors, it was deemed that the fireworks would proceed, and that the night would be used as a fundraiser to collect money for those who had be affected by the fires.
In the days after Christmas, I spent much of my time arranging interviews with local and national media for the Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor, as they explained the decision to push ahead with the event.
Quite apart from media relations duties, I was also responsible for social media over the Christmas shutdown period…and didn’t people have their opinions about whether we should proceed with the fireworks or not! There was some very emotive debate going on.
The big night arrived and it started off without a hitch, with a huge crowd packing in to Elder Park – it would turn out to be the largest crowd of all time for a New Year’s Eve event in Adelaide. After a succession of 40-degree plus days, the weather was perfect with a gentle cool breeze blowing across the park. I organised a series of weather crosses for Channels 9, 10 and Sky, and all was in readiness for a good night.
The 9pm family fireworks commenced with much anticipation. And then it happened. A burning ember from the fireworks fell from the sky and lodged in the reeds on the far bank of the River Torrens. A small flame flickered. It got bigger and bigger and bigger. Soon, the whole reed bed was alight.
To my right stood the Lord Mayor, mouth agape. The worst possible thing had happened – a fire had broken out at Elder Park. Thankfully, it was extinguished in minutes, but it didn’t look good!
As 80,000 people watched on, many with their smartphones up taking footage of the fire, my phone rang. Here we go. Andrew Hough from The Advertiser:
‘Does the City of Adelaide have a media statement about the fire?’
‘Um, give me five minutes and I will have statement for you’, I stumbled. Gosh, that was quick…
I headed down to the Event Operations Centre and, with four people looking expectantly over my shoulder, I punched out the quickest media release I’ve ever written:
STATEMENT ABOUT SMALL FIRE ON NORTHERN RIVERBANK AT CONCLUSION OF FAMILY FIREWORKS
A small fire started at the conclusion of the family fireworks in a reed bed on the northern bank of the river, adjacent to the River Torrens footbridge.
The fire was quickly extinguished within 3 minutes by pyrotechnics staff. The Metropolitan Fire Service attended the location of the fire but it had already been extinguished. The MFS were stationed within the precinct as a precaution.
The pyrotechnician responsible for the site, Mark Petkidis, from Howard & Sons, was contacted by the Event Operations Centre immediately after the fire was extinguished. His advice was that the fire was caused by falling ash from the fireworks. The fire occurred within the designated fireworks exclusion zone and was quickly extinguished by safety staff using their standard operating procedures.
The incident did not disrupt the program of events and the River Torrens footbridge was reopened as scheduled to enable the Adelaide Strikers crowd to depart the precinct.
The midnight fireworks will proceed as scheduled.
An eventful night.