JACKSONVILLE — West Fir Street above the Britt Festivals grounds is now a fire lane during concerts after nonpaying spectators slowed access for emergency vehicles responding to a July fire.
City firefighters stopped the blaze on the trail system above Britt at one-eighth of an acre after they got to it July 23 during an Earth, Wind and Fire concert. But the incident raised safety concerns for city and festival officials.
Barricades with signs designating the road as a fire lane now are put in place during concerts. An extra security person hired by Britt patrols the lane to advise people they cannot stop or stand in the road, said Jacksonville Fire Department Chief Devin Hull, who was present the night of the fire.
"People were basically sitting on the public access, which is the roadway, with lawn chairs and blankets and coolers, and hanging out and doing their thing," said Hull.
"They eventually gathered their stuff and got up and out of the way, willfully, it just took a while to do so," he said.
Hull couldn't estimate the amount of time it took to clear the roadway because the situation was chaotic with lots of pointing and yelling, and some people suggesting the firefighters find another route.
Patrols and signs have improved the situation.
"The access is much clearer. People aren't sitting in the street," said Hull. Vehicle access on the road has never been permitted during concerts.
"For the time being, the signs that were put in place seem to be working," said Mayor Paul Becker. "What made that one a little scary is that a fire, in wind, could have jumped over the draws and gone right down into the (concert) bowl ... we had a packed house."
This year Britt replaced a fence that had allowed people to view concerts from Fir Street.
"This is the first season we've had the wooden fence," said Britt Festivals Executive Director Donna Briggs. "I'm thinking there's fewer folks."
Bystanders will come up and hang out for a few minutes but not stay long, said City Administrator Jeff Alvis.
"It's getting less and less. People just can't see from there," he said.
"We hired extra security to help the fire department keep the lane open in case of an emergency," Briggs said. "In terms of fire lanes and streets, it's a city issue."
Response by emergency medical services personnel also was impeded along Fir Street during the Children's Festival on the Britt grounds earlier in July.
The street was crowded with foot traffic, although Hull eventually was able to get his car up the hill. But firefighters had to run the length of the road carrying medical equipment to the emergency because they couldn't get through with their fire truck.
The City Council discussed the issue at length with Briggs and city officials at the Aug. 7 council meeting. Becker said the council will take another look at the issue after the concert season concludes.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.