Opinion: Fireworks Controversy May Affect Sydney NYE & Australia Day In Sydney Due To Bushfire Risk

UPDATE (14/11/2019): The Australian reports Transport for NSW has temporarily banned on-water fireworks while the week-long state of emergency remains in place. Transport for NSW said the granting of licences for on-water fireworks displays will be reviewed again on Monday.

A fireworks display held last night for Daikan, an air conditioning company, on Sydney Harbour has stirred controversy in Sydneysiders due to an exemption given despite a total fire ban in force for Sydney and a state of emergency declared for New South Wales.

The display, 8 minutes in duration and held by Howards Fireworks, was labelled “one of the best fireworks displays of the year” by Twitter user Sydney Fireworks, who follows all Sydney fireworks displays (not just the major ones like us).

Worse of all (no offense Sydney Fireworks), it coincidentally seems to be the most praised non-Spectacular fireworks display on Sydney Harbour that Sydney Fireworks has ever reviewed.

9 News reports the display was booked by Daikin, an air conditioning company. Ironically, most air conditioning can contribute to global warming and thus add to further and more intense bushfires.

Clearly, this fireworks display could have been revoked out of respect. It was just a corporate function.

7 News also reported NSW Water Minister Melinda Pavey said the timing of the display was questionable.

“It shows a little bit of a lack of respect for our country folk who are going through hell on earth at this time,” she said.

A NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) spokesperson told 10 daily it’s likely the NSW Government applied to the NSW RFS Commissioner for an exemption to proceed with the fireworks.

The exemption was given in the event weather conditions had improved even though the total fire ban lasted until Midnight and high fire danger warnings were issued.

Sydney Harbour is also surrounded by bushland. The city itself is surrounded by bushland. Sydney, as recent as 1994, has been at risk of being surrounded by bushfires, leaving the city isolated from the rest of the world.

Andrew Howard, director of Howard Fireworks told Sydney Spectaculars that exemptions are quite common with hundreds issued during the fire season if it is deemed safe to do so. He also told AAP it wasn’t his call to proceed with Wednesday’s event.

“It wasn’t my decision to proceed. I was contracted to provide the services for the event”

Mr Howard said he would not have gone ahead with the display if it was up to him, knowing the “effect on the entire community” the bushfires had.

“It certainly could’ve been (deemed insensitive) to people who feel that it was. I totally respect their position on it,” he said.

But he reiterated Wednesday’s pyrotechnics were lawful, having been granted an exemption from the total fire ban.

RFS and Fire & Rescue NSW both confirmed to 9News the exemption had been granted for the event after risk assessments.

The fact it was a Sydney Harbour display at a time when fire warnings & bans were issued for Sydney itself should have been a sign of impending controversy, especially given the scale & tragedy of recent fires, which is deserving of not applying the exemption even if weather conditions were fine.

The last major exemption given was for Sydney New Year’s Eve (NYE) 2001 – ‘Of Beauty Rich & Rare: Australia – The Land’, which was held in the middle of Black Christmas & a total fire ban. The theme that year was, coincidentally, suitable as it was an outback/country theme. It highlighted a reminder of the lives of those suffering from bushfires.

However, it’s international status didn’t stop controversy breaking out. With increasing risk of worse bushfires due to global warming, a forecast predicting one of NSW’s worst bushfire seasons to continue and one of the largest bushfires burning since the 1980’s, controversy breaking out on a regular fireworks display on Sydney Harbour provokes questions on how large a future controversy will be.

Sydney NYE1993, 1997 – ‘Masquarade’ & 2005 – ‘Heart Of The Harbour’ were also held during a total fire ban. However, there was no major NSW bushfires burning at those times (apart from 1993 as you can tell above), which is a critical difference to the current situation. We don’t know if there were any total fire bans before NYE1993. It should be noted Sydney NYE1993 & 1997 – ‘Masquarade’ were not when Sydney’s fireworks were internationally renowned. However, they are internationally renowed now so 2001’s Sydney NYE edition is the benchmark for fire conditions. However, the 1993 bushfires were about twice as worse as 2001.

The decision to provide an exemption for this display was accidentally careless in not considering the implications of a controversy on the major fireworks displays of Sydney NYE & Australia Day Live, both held in peak bushfire season. Though it is understandable that future major events are not the fire services’ main concern, it could have been revoked out of concern for controversy in light of the recent bushfires.

Theming cannot be used as a justification for Sydney NYE being held this time as this year’s event and for the next 2 years has no theme. It essentially is a ‘party’ theme and partying while the world burns around you would be considered highly distasteful.

Given last night’s controversy, if bushfire conditions are similar or worse to Black Christmas in the week leading up to Sydney NYE, public pressure could grow larger than anticipated due to today’s controversy.

In the event public pressure is too great, it is expected the Midnight Fireworks would be cancelled outright while one or both 9pm & Midnight displays (though now joined) would be postponed to Australia Day. The 9pm Family Fireworks display may be postponed on the night to a time no later than 10:30pm. The fire tug display, which also opens this year’s edition at 6:50pm, may also be cancelled if it is needed for firefighting purposes. It usually sprays water too during this display, which might be consider distasteful given any firefighting efforts, the drought & water restrictions. The aerial display by Matt Hall could be cancelled too if there is high air pollution from smoke,  reducing visibility.

The only times Sydney NYE has been cancelled out right was in 1987 & 1988 due to a mass murder in 1986 after a decade of escalating violence, which they spent the 7 years prior trying to resolve.

In 2002, the 9pm Family Fireworks were cancelled due to 90km/h+ winds.

It is possible a charity fund could be set up as part of the live media broadcasts as a trade off. It was last done for NYE2004 – ‘Reflections On Australiana’ for victims of the Indian Ocean Earthquake & Tsunami. However, it would conflict with this year’s charity partner, Refugee Council Of Australia. It could though provide an educational opportunity for the charity partner to emphasise the potential migration of refugees from global warming events such as more frequent and intense bushfires.

In the 2004 edition, a minute’s silence, which was also broadcast, was held prior to the start of the 9pm Family Fireworks’ 10 second countdown. While 6 people have already died from this year’s bushfires, we hope the death toll doesn’t increase further closer to NYE, necessitating a minute’s silence. The Black Christmas bushfires had zero deaths.

It should be noted Sydney New Year’s Eve is a carbon neutral event.

A City Of Sydney spokesman declined to comment on hypothetical situations. However, we believe it is highly likely they have a plan in place. Sydney NYE is known to have fireworks displays planned to be postponed or cancelled (Midnight) if winds are too high. Also, good event management means planning for every scenario including total fire bans, media controversies, bushfires on Sydney Harbour foreshore land, fire danger warnings etc. particularly given the event is essentially a fireworks event.

The City Of Sydney spokesman though did say:

We’ve all been deeply saddened by the destructive bushfires ravaging NSW and Queensland.

The City of Sydney extends its sympathy to those affected and also acknowledges the hard work of the NSW Rural Fire Service and all emergency service responders who have saved countless lives and homes.

Sydney New Year’s Eve is one of the world’s biggest public events.

The event attracts more than one million people to the harbour foreshore, more than one billion global viewers and generates more than $130 million into the NSW economy annually.

The event unites people from all over Australia and the world, with a message of hope, happiness and celebration.

A large proportion of the New Year’s Eve budget is spent on crowd safety measures.

The City donated more than $200,000 to drought affected communities in 2018.

 On Monday night Council will consider a Lord Mayoral Minute that if approved will see the City donate $300,000 to the Country Women’s Association of NSW Drought Aid appeal, $300,000 to the NSW Rural Fire Services, and $20,000 to WIRES to assist wildlife recovery and rehoming.

The Minute will also see the City match staff donations to bushfire and drought appeals dollar for dollar, and offer in-kind support to firefighting efforts, bushfire relief, and post-emergency clean-up, such as water trucks, other council service vehicles and staff.

Australia Day In Sydney also reached a new level of significance last year and if precedent is followed, fireworks would be cancelled outright if bushfire conditions are just as bad.

Australia Day In Sydney fireworks in 2003, which were the postponed Sydney NYE2002 – ‘The World’s Celebration In Union’ 9pm Family Fireworks, were cancelled due to a total fire ban and out of respect for firefighters, on Government orders.

We would advise people who have brought tickets for Sydney NYE or Australia Day events to check their refund policies in the event the iconic fireworks are cancelled or postponed to Australia Day as the City Of Sydney is the official organiser providing the fireworks for free. Tickets are usually only refunded if the actual function you are attending is cancelled or below par – not if the fireworks are cancelled or below par. Pirrama Park Wharf is probably the only exception to this so far. People who have bought tickets in National Park areas especially should be cautious. Keep an eye on the news in the week before NYE for any bushfire-related updates.

Sydney Fireworks reports that a Sydney Harbour display for tomorrow night has been postponed for 13 days while Darling Harbour’s weekly fireworks have been cancelled:

Australia Day In Sydney & the Rural Fire Service have been contacted for enquiries.

Disclaimer: Sydney Spectaculars is not associated with Sydney New Year’s Eve organisers, the City Of Sydney, nor Australia Day In Sydney organisers, NSW Government Department Of Premier & Cabinet. As of writing, the fireworks are still planned to go ahead. This is just an opinion article warning of the risks the bushfires may bring plus stating our opinion that last night’s fireworks display causing controversy did not help.