What Does The Climate Crisis Mean For The Future Of Summer Festivals?

Could the summer festival season soon be a thing of the past?

lost paradise bushfire crisis festival photo

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Mid-morning on December 12, organisers of New South Wales festival Lost Paradise released a statement.

“After extensive consultation with the Rural Fire Service, emergency personnel and other key stakeholders, the difficult decision has been made to cancel this year’s Lost Paradise festival,” they wrote.

“Our beautiful home in Sydney’s Central Coast is facing intense and unpredictable fire conditions that are sadly expected to deteriorate. We simply cannot put anyone’s life at risk. We have been working around the clock to explore all possible options to relocate the festival, but it is just not feasible within the timeframe.”

The festival, which was set to be headlined by RÜFÜS DU SOL, Hilltop Hoods, and Green Velvet, was going to kick off on December 28 — the same day Falls Festival was due to begin in Lorne, Victoria.

On December 29, as punters in Lorne were recovering from the first day of the festival, they received an abrupt message from promoters. The remaining days of the festival were being cancelled due to the extreme weather conditions — possible fires, smoke, severe winds, and tree hazards — that were forecast for the coming days.

“We are gutted to make this call but the safety of our patrons, artists and staff is our main priority,” wrote promoter Jessica Ducrou. “We would like to thank our regional emergency management team, Surf Coast Council, SES, Police and CFA for their support and advice during this time. We would also like to thank our Falls family who work year round and over the last few weeks who have put their heart and soul into Falls Lorne, we are forever grateful. Please take care getting home safely.”

Organisers now faced the task of getting 9000 camping attendees safely out of the site, as well as trying to deter the 5000 more day-trippers that were expected to turn up that day. It was a mammoth effort, and incredibly stressful for festival staff and festival-goers alike.

It wasn’t the first time organisers have had to shift the festival because of safety concerns: in 2015, the entire festival was moved to Mt Duneed estate just days before it was due to begin, because a nearby bushfire in the Otways had jumped containment lines.

Falls Festival

Photo Credit: Supplied

Barely two weeks after Falls’ announcement, it was dance festival Rainbow Serpent’s turn to make the call.

“This morning we undertook a meeting and inspection onsite with the CFA, Victoria Police, Forest Fire Management Victoria and Pyrenees Council staff,” organisers wrote in a statement last week. “Due to a number of safety concerns stemming from the fire that affected the site and the wider bushfire impacts across the country, it was agreed that holding RSF over the scheduled weekend in Lexton simply isn’t the right thing to do.

“It hasn’t been an easy decision to know what is the right path forward – as much as we all love RSF, the health and safety of patrons and crew is our number one priority. This is key to any decisions made and of course, we always consider our impact and commitment to the land and the local community.”

Rainbow Serpent will salvage their festival — they’ll host an event in the Melbourne CBD later this month, and hope to return to Lexton over Easter for a larger gig.

There were more: Lunar Electric in Maitland was postponed due to extreme weather conditions, as was Subsonic festival, while Rutherglen’s A Day On The Green was cancelled due to poor air quality. Cobargo Folk Festival has been postponed until further notice, after the NSW south coast town was devastated by the New Year’s Eve fires.

The summer festival season has always aligned with Australia’s major bushfire season, meaning cancellations and postponements are not unusual from time to time. But this season has been unprecedented, and it could have a far reaching impact on the way Australia’s festival industry is run.

A Crowded Season

Australia’s bushfire season runs through spring and summer —  with the exception being in the very northwest and north of the country, which has its bushfire season in winter and spring (when the grasses are dry).

The festival season runs pretty much parallel to this, with Listen Out kicking off proceedings in September, and Laneway rounding things up in early February. A few major festivals happen outside of this timeframe of course — Splendour in the Grass, Groovin The Moo — but for the most part, all of Australia’s festivals are crammed into an incredibly busy six months. It’s a no-brainer as to why: the weather is better, more people are on holidays, and there’s a greater availability of overseas bands as the international festival season tends to wrap up in August.

It’s only getting more crowded too: in the last couple of years we’ve seen Festival X, Wildlands, Ultra Australia, Download, and Good Things all debut, as well as stacks of smaller boutique events.

At the same time, Australia’s bushfire season is only getting more intense. The Bureau of Meteorology has stated that climate change is “influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia”; climate change is making our summer conditions more extreme, and also lengthening our bushfire season, as dangerous conditions are now occurring earlier and earlier in the year.

The Garnaut Climate Change Report, which was handed down in 2008, says much the same thing: “….fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020,” the report stated.

The bushfire season starting earlier also means that fire authorities have a smaller window in which to prepare for the season — including conducting hazard reduction burns to reduce fire fuel, which can only be conducted under strict conditions when the weather is favourable.

Festivals Aren’t Immune To The Danger

Speaking to triple j’s Hack after their cancellation announcement, festival site landowner Jayne Briody flagged that Rainbow Serpent might never be held in Lexton again.

“What happened on December 20 was an eye-opener, and I hate to think what would happen if the Rainbow Serpent festival was running when that happened,” she told the broadcaster. “A good 50 to 60 percent of the Rainbow Serpent area was burned. Basically all the campground and all the event area was destroyed by fire and a lot of trees had to be removed due to safety concerns.”

Serpent organisers are now “actively considering” permanently moving the festival to Easter weekend.

“It’s just too dangerous in January,” Briody told Hack. “The festival pulls in so many wonderful people from so many avenues of life, and just to think that anyone could get hurt. I think it’s been running on our property for 10 years, and I think in 10 years we’ve been fairly lucky that nothing major has happened.”

Rainbow Serpent aren’t alone in considering the future of their festival: “We’re all driving into a new landscape that is unknown,” A Day On The Green co-founder Mick Newton told the Australian Financial Review“So you’ve got to wait for the dust to settle and see what plays out for this summer and then reassess where everyone’s at once it’s over”.

Rural festivals could now face rising insurance premiums, and increased costs of police and on-site health professionals — a big ask for festivals already operating on razor thin margins. It’s also a question of whether they can find spaces in which large events can even be held safely; holding a festival in the middle of the bush is an attractive proposition, evacuating 10,000 people at a moments notice is not.

The Australian Festival Industry Conference (AFIC) has already flagged that fire safety and emergency management would be a top priority for this year’s event in September, given the events of the last month.

So What Could Happen?

The summer festival season is far from over, meaning it will be a while before the industry has time to reset and reassess their practices heading into the future. It’s clear, though, that this will be an ongoing issue.

There are few things that could change. More festivals could follow Rainbow Serpent’s lead, and move their events further away from summer, meaning the October long weekend and Easter could become attractive dates for festivals. Some could push even further into the year, occupying space that only Groovin the Moo and Splendour now fill.

The immediate problem with this is two-fold. Firstly, moving an event out of the holiday period means attendance and ticket sales will likely suffer, which could potentially prevent them even going ahead. Secondly, if Australian festivals move further into the territory occupied by European and North American festivals, we’ll likely see a drop in overseas acts coming to our shores — why fly 24 hours to Australia for one festival when you can stay in Europe and play numerous dates in one week?

Laneway Photos

Gang of Youths on stage at Laneway festival 2019. Photo Credit: Belinda Dipalo/Music Junkee

And if organisers elect to move their festivals out of rural areas, the economic impact on those communities will be significant.

“The economic value that festival tourism contributes to metropolitan and regional communities (such as those on the NSW South Coast and in Victoria) is not to be underestimated, and the impact will be substantial,” says AFIC event director Carlina Ericson.

It’s not just an economic impact of course: unlike their city peers, rural kids often don’t have access to regular live music, meaning festivals are the sometimes the only way they can get to see their favourite acts live. Moving these festivals into cities would be a big blow for rural music communities.

It will be a while before we know exactly how our changing summers will impact on the festival season, but what we do know is that festivals, like all Australians, will have to adapt to our new reality.

Jules LeFevre is editor of Music Junkee. She is on Twitter

Photo Credit: Jordan Munns/Lost Paradise