With storm bearing down, Edmonton folk festival manager faced hard choice

With storm bearing down, Edmonton folk festival manager faced hard choice

With his staff warning of an approaching storm, Terry Wickham had minutes to make a decision he knew would affect thousands of people at Thursday night's Edmonton Folk Festival.

The forecast called for high winds, and the long-time producer instantly thought back to another deadly storm at another Alberta music festival.

Within 10 or 15 minutes, Wickham made up his mind: Fans were alerted and Gallagher Park was evacuated.

"Emotionally it was a hard to decision to make," he said on Friday. "You hate to disappoint people but safety is the number one call."

Fresh in Wickham's mind the evening before was the 2009 tragedy at the Big Valley Jamboree, where 93 km/h winds buckled the stage. Donna Moore, 35, a mother of two, was crushed by a large speaker.

"You know, Big Valley had that situation a few years ago," Wickham said. "They're more sensitive to it. We're more sensitive to it."

Only happened twice before in 37 years

Hundreds of festival-goers left Gallagher Park at 8:30 p.m without getting to see the final performances. Only twice before in the festival's 37-year history have organizers ever ended a concert early.

In the end, Thursday's storm didn't hit the festival, and the only casualties were a hanging jumbotron and an estimated $100,000 in ticket refunds.

But Wickham is comfortable he made the right call.

Earlier in the day, he had received reports about a storm near Fort McMurray that was heading to Edmonton. By 7 p.m., the storm had strengthened and a second line of storms packing even stronger winds had been spotted.

The Big Valley tragedy in 2009 led to a fatality inquiry. One of the key findings was that outdoor festivals should have a meteorologist on site.

But Wickham made it clear the folk festival's meteorologist didn't make the call to evacuate the grounds. He did that himself.

Festival doesn't have cancellation insurance

The festival doesn't carry insurance for weather cancellations, he said, because it would cost too much.

It would also be too expensive for the festival to have an alternative venue, because the only place that could hold a crowd that size would be Rogers Place.

Wickham said for proprietary reasons he can't disclose how much money in performance fees was lost to pay artists who didn't perform.

After a meeting of key staff on Friday, the festival announced its refund policy. One-day ticket holders will be able to attend Friday's performances for free or get a refund. Four-day pass holders will not get a refund.

Festival-goer Rob Norton said he agreed with the move to end Thursday night early.

"I think they made the right call," he said. "Better be safe than sorry."