July 08--Whitefish seems to have a new Fourth of July tradition.
For the second consecutive year, the pyrotechnics barge caught fire in the middle of the annual fireworks display over Whitefish Lake. Flames fully engulfed the structure during the grand finale, sending a large plume of black smoke into the night sky as thousands of spectators cheered from City Beach.
The blaze started about halfway through the show when an ember landed on the plywood-covered barge.
Amazingly, the fire didn't disrupt the show. Only five fireworks weren't launched as planned.
Whitefish fire crews staged nearby on the city's fire boat eventually were able to knock down the blaze using a water canon. No one was on the barge during the show and no one was injured in the blaze.
Pyrotechnics from Big Sky Fireworks out of Helena assessed the damage Saturday morning. The barge still floats, but the decking was charred and most of the mortar tubes used to shoot the fireworks were melted.
The Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the annual display and maintains the barge, recently signed a three-year contract with Big Sky Fireworks. The company has put on the display the last five years.
Chamber executive director Kevin Gartland watched the fireworks this year from Veterans Peace Park and knew something was askew when he saw the plume of thick black smoke.
He commended the fireworks crew for controlling the situation, and said they're looking at ways to prevent another fire from happening at future shows.
One option, Gartland suggested, is to expand the size of the barge, which currently is about 320 square feet.
"There's a lot of fireworks on very small piece of dock," Gartland explained. "It's loaded to the gills."
Fire-proofing the decking also is being considered. Gartland noted there was no breeze on Friday, allowing embers to fall directly onto the wood decking.
Another option is to stage the display on land, which would allow pyrotechnics to spread out the mortar tubes, and make it easier to extinguish flames when they start.
Gartland has reached out to the Whitefish Fire Department to plan for next year's show.
"Luckily we have 362 days to plan," he said. "I don't expect lightning to strike three times -- I hope not."
In 1989, the Whitefish fireworks display was cut short when a shell exploded on the barge, injuring two with the pyrotechnics crew. The accident was blamed on an unsafe barge. The show was canceled the following two years until a new barge was purchased.
In 2006, the fireworks show was canceled because the launching barge was deemed unsafe and rotting.
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