While the first-ever weather-related mass evacuation of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass venue Friday night did create some high anxiety among the approximately 9,000 attendees, “At no time were people in any danger,” Snowmass Village Police Chief Brian Olson said Sunday.
“I did not see any fights. I did not see anyone get punched,” Olson said in response to a question about social media posts indicating some frantic concertgoers became unruly while awaiting transportation from the venue.
All told, it took about two-and-a-half hours to completely clear the grounds after headliner Lionel Richie announced that an emergency evacuation was required due to lightning in the area. Richie, who took the stage late because his flight into Aspen was diverted to Rifle, performed for about 50 minutes. Refunds were not available because the show was considered a “force majeure,” according to JAS.
The entrance to the concert grounds in Town Park, which featured a new configuration this year through the Rodeo parking lot, was protected by 15 officers and almost 100 security guards, Olson said. He added, “We were all around people who were evacuating.”
Olson also said that the time it took to clear the venue on Friday “was not a standard we aspire to.”
Jazz Aspen Snowmass President and CEO Jim Horowitz described the speed at which Friday’s storm moved in as “like a freight train,” and emphasized that the show was called off at 9:15 p.m. due to the prevalence and proximity of lightning and not just rain. “This was a completely unprecedented event. It was mandatory,” Horowitz said.
“We had a plan. The plan went into place but unless you had 150 buses lined up, and there was nowhere to stage them, it was impossible to get 8,000, 9,000 people from place to place,” he said.
Horowitz used the first visit by Keith Urban in 2013 as an example of how heavy rain alone had delayed but not forced cancellation of a JAS concert. “With rain you wait it out. Lightning you have to leave the venue, period.
“There has never been an evacuation before. Let alone in a year when we are tweaking our transportation system,” Horowitz said.
The new entrance layout, which used a different bus drop-off and pick-up configuration, provided an added wrinkle as veteran concertgoers were less familiar with the egress. Olson, who was a proponent of the reconfigured layout that funneled traffic completely off Brush Creek Road, said it removes the potential for vehicle and pedestrian interactions and comes in part as a response to real-world violence.
Also new this year was that JAS leased buses from the Aspen School District for part of its transportation program, rather than using Snowmass town shuttles. Horowitz said the change was due in part to the school buses having greater capacity than the smaller town shuttles.
Aspen School District board of education president Sheila Wills confirmed Sunday that the district was realizing revenue by leasing out the buses during times when they were otherwise unused.
“Our Director of Transportation, Gary Vavra, estimates that the district gained approximately $60,000 in revenue by leasing our buses out this summer to events like weddings and conferences.” Wills said Sunday by text. She believed there were similar contracts in place for JAS concerts and last week’s Tough Mudder event.
Can’t plan for immediate evacuation
Regardless of how much capacity each vehicle has, there was no way to stage enough shuttles outside the concert grounds to immediately satisfy the transportation needs of the wet and cold concertgoers, according to both Horowitz and Olson.
“I think any time you empty a concert venue in one immediate action, you’re just not going to have a natural response that everybody’s used to,” Olson said. “When it came to emptying the venue, based on its new design, we were faced with pinch points that caused the flow to slow.”
In one case, attendees took the matter into their own hands by pushing aside some bicycle barricades to widen the path to the bus stops.
Olson said the only time there seemed to be a panic situation was in the first 10 minutes following the evacuation announcement and admitted the specter of lightning in an area filled with tall aluminum poles and barriers was intimidating. Rain fell in sheets as people scrambled to queue up for buses immediately upon their arrival at Town Park station. He estimated that 80 percent of the people were prepared for the weather and 20 percent were not.
“In any situation, we don’t plan buses for an immediate evacuation. You just can’t do that,” Olson said. But he also allowed that in the joint management of transportation “we try to pick an appropriate number. We just missed the mark” that day, he said.
Horowitz noted that Friday night’s demand was about double the number who would normally depart a show en masse at its end. He also said that on Saturday night following Jack Johnson’s performance, the venue was empty within an hour and that the new drop-off system that skirted Brush Creek Road worked well after the first night.
Saturday’s actual attendance was below the vaunted 10,000-person daily sell-out. Horowitz said the no-shows may have been attributed to Friday’s weather and the concern of a repeat. There were about 30,000 advance tickets sold for the weekend.
Asked whether the Snowmass Recreation Center or the temporary fire district buildings in the Rodeo Lot could have been used to house soaked attendees fleeing Richie’s concert, Olson said their capacity was far too small for that to have been attempted.
“We have nowhere to evacuate people into the inside for safety. It’s an outdoor rural venue,” he said.
Horowitz said that other than the evacuation, this year’s festival had progressed seamlessly as of midday Sunday.
“Three sellouts is the headline,” Horowitz said. “In hindsight there was inconvenience. We made the right and only decision as a matter of public safety.”
The Denver Post, citing a National Weather Service report, said .14 inches of rain fell Friday night. Temperatures dipped into the 40s which made the situation more uncomfortable.
“People really dealt with a challenging situation like only Colorado people could,” Horowitz said.
Olson agreed that despite the hiccup, the new venue layout works.
“The new configuration is something we’re going to stick with. We think it’s a success. It’s a safer environment with everybody moving back and forth. Implementing it this year came with some lessons learned,” he said.
Could one lesson from this year’s festival be that an artist build in enough time to absorb any potential weather or travel delays?
“Lionel’s flight delay was the first part of the weather problem,” Horowitz said, noting that Richie had a performance the previous evening and opted to fly in the afternoon of the show. “We advise them to get here if the can the night prior” in order to acclimate to high altitude.
Horowitz also said, “We moved him the second he was on the ground. It happens sometimes in the music business,”
He added that Michael Franti performed a “heroic show” to fill in some of the time before Richie’s start, and that Franti did not hesitate when asked to continue playing.