Fireworks at Lake Oswego's inaugural City-sponsored show didn't fly high enough to be visible above the trees

REVIEW PHOTO: ANTHONY MACUK - Viewers at Millennium Plaza Park found that trees and the roof of the Lakeshore Inn obscured their view of most of the City-sponsored Fourth of July fireworks.Lake Oswego took its first shot at a downtown Fourth of July fireworks display last week, and although the fireworks themselves went off without a hitch, a significant portion of the show turned out to be obscured by the treeline at two of the three primary viewing sites.

"We were at Millennium Park. They could not be seen AT ALL from there," Julianne Flynn told The Review after the show. "Everyone was disappointed."

That disappointment left City staff and officials scrambling this week to figure out what went wrong. Lake Oswego's Parks & Recreation Department released a statement acknowledging that many of the advertised locations ended up with partially blocked views.

"Due to the limited width of the Willamette River and required safety setbacks, the size of the fireworks were restricted and did not reach the appropriate height for viewing at many locations," a department spokesperson said. "We apologize for this unfortunate circumstance and will be evaluating future fireworks shows and accompanying advertising of viewing areas."

Parks & Rec Director Ivan Anderholm told The Review that he and officials from contractor Western Display Fireworks evaluated the primary site at George Rogers Park in advance, but didn't perform any direct tests for visibility.

Western Display had previously been contracted to produce a show at the same location in 2017 for Lake Oswego's Iron Jubilee event. That show ended up getting canceled at the last minute due to weather, Anderholm said, but planners relied on the site evaluation that had been done for that show to prepare for this year's pyrotechnics.

"What it comes down to is that there was a miscalculation in what would be visible," he said. "I think the responsibility for that falls directly on our department. There's a little bit of shared responsibly, but it's shared responsibility between us and our contractor."

Repeated calls to Western Display for comment were not returned.

REVIEW PHOTO: ANTHONY MACUK - Viewers at lower George Rogers Park near the iron furnace were able to see the entire Fourth of July show, but the venue is small and the idea behind a downtown show was to create more viewing spaces.

High hopes

This year's $24,000 display was the first professional show ever launched from the Willamette River over Lake Oswego. It was intended to give more of the city's residents an opportunity to view Fourth of July fireworks close to home.

In previous years, the City had contributed partial funding to a show above the west end of Oswego Lake, which is produced by the private Lake Oswego Corporation. But the lake is almost entirely surrounded by private property and the only public viewing area is the Lake Grove Swim Park, which has resulted in packed crowds and gridlocked traffic every year.

Last year, the City Council decided to stop funding the Lake Corp show and instead spend the money on a City-produced show somewhere at the east end of Lake Oswego, where there would be more public space for viewers and greater parking and traffic capacity on the roads.

After considering multiple launch sites, staff eventually selected a location on the Willamette River next to George Rogers Park. The idea was that the site would allow residents to choose between three different viewing locations: the field by the historic iron furnace at lower George Rogers Park, the ballfields at upper George Rogers Park and Millennium Plaza Park in the downtown core.

In the hours leading up to last week's show, things appeared to be playing out the way planners had hoped. Hundreds of people set up chairs and blankets at each location, but the crowd was evenly distributed and none of the viewing sites appeared to be overcrowded. There was considerable pedestrian traffic along State Street and around the two parks, but the roads remained clear of any traffic jams.

But when 10 p.m. rolled around and the fireworks show began, it immediately became clear that things weren't working as intended. The crowd at lower George Rogers Park had a prime view of the pyrotechnics, but for the larger group of viewers at the upper ballfields, most of the fireworks were hidden behind a tall grove of trees that line the hillside between the two halves of the park.

"I could hear people talking, and they were asking all the obvious questions anyone would ask," said Councilor Joe Buck, who was at the ballfield. "'Who put this together? Why are we sitting here watching a show where the fireworks don't extend above the treeline?'"

A handful of the rockets did at least partially clear the tree line, but the ballfield crowd quickly realized they were missing the majority of the show. A large procession of people streamed toward the lower furnace area, prompting a police officer to begin urging the crowd to stay on one side and keep a traffic lane clear.

"A lot of people went down to the furnace, and from there you could see. But of course that's just as constrained an area as the swim park," Buck said.

At Millennium Plaza, onlookers found their view similarly obstructed by the treeline along the river and the roof of the nearby Lakeshore Inn. The crowd shifted along the length of the plaza, trying to find a clear line of site. Several groups appeared to give up, and the crowd thinned out noticeably during the 20-minute show.

The grand finale of the show included a large number of high-flying rockets, eliciting cheers and applause from those who had stuck around at the plaza. Still, there was an unmistakable feeling of disappointment in the air as the remainder of the crowd dispersed.

In the hours after the show, several viewers left comments on The Review's Facebook page, expressing their disappointment with how it played out.

"We waited hours with our kids at the Millennium Plaza and felt let down," wrote Paige Griffin. "We left a few minutes into it."

Lessons learned

Anderholm told The Review this week that Parks & Rec is still working on debriefing with Western Display to go over the planning process and find out why the visibility estimates were incorrect — and to figure out whether higher-flying rockets can be used next time.

The size and launch height of a fireworks show is limited by the amount of area around the launch site that can serve as a "safe zone." The higher a firework goes, the wider a safe zone it requires, and that was the main consideration that led to the City selecting George Rogers Park as the viewing area and the Willamette River as the launch point.

"The general rule of thumb is for every inch in diameter the firework is, you can add two zeros to get how many feet it will go in the air," Anderholm said. "So a two-inch projectile will go about 200 feet in the air, and so on."

Safe zones don't necessarily have to be over water, according to Anderholm, but there can't be any people or privately-owned structures within a zone. The Willamette River was one of the only launch locations in Lake Oswego that offered both a large empty space for the safe zone and a large nearby field or park to accommodate all the viewers, he said.

There are private homes along the eastern shore of the river, Anderholm said, so the safety zone couldn't extend past the edge of the water. Foothills Park was initially considered as the venue for this year's show, but when the City began working with Western Display, the company found that the section of the Willamette River next to Foothills was too narrow.

"We found that because of the safety area requirements, it would've been too restrictive and wouldn't have allowed any viewing from the actual Foothills Park property," Anderholm said.

The river is wider near George Rogers Park, so launching from that location allowed Western Display to use rockets with shell diameters of up to three inches, which wouldn't have been possible at Foothills, according to Heather Gobet, a company official who spoke to The Review last month.

The constraints on the safety area still prevented shells larger than three inches, but Gobet said the company planned to focus on rockets that would be able to travel "at least a couple hundred feet" into the air, and Anderholm said City staff expected the rockets to reach up to 300 feet, which they thought would be high enough to clear the treetops.

"The upper ballfield is the prime viewing area," Recreation Supervisor Jamie Ingles told The Review last month. "You'll also be able to see it from Millennium Plaza Park — they'll go high enough up."

Anderholm said City staff still aren't sure if the rockets failed to reach 300 feet or if 300 feet simply turned out to not be high enough, but that's one of the issues that the City plans to discuss with Western Display.

According to City Manager Scott Lazenby, it will be up to the City Council to decide whether to give the City-hosted show another shot next year. But if it does happen, Anderholm said, the planning will be handled differently and will include "a true evaluation" of the visibility conditions, possibly by flying a drone above the river to identify the precise visible area above the treeline.

The Lake Corporation show was still held as usual this year, albeit without any financial involvement from the City, and Lazenby noted that the downtown show did have the desired effect of easing the crowding and congestion in the area around the swim park.

Buck added that the new venue was also successful at providing more parking and accessibility for viewers, and he said the City Council would be examining this year's show to see what lessons can be learned about how to set up future shows in a way that can still get the benefits of the downtown venue without sacrificing visibility.

The City will also be looking at whether it's possible to launch larger rockets, Anderholm said, either from an entirely new site or by moving the river launch point closer to the western shore in order to keep the eastside houses out of the safe zone.

The safe zone can be extended past the western edge of the river and into the lower parts of George Rogers Park, Anderholm said, provided those areas are made off-limits to the public during the show.

"One of the things we'll be looking at is if we do five- or even six-inch shells, can we get 500, 600 feet away from the homes on the other side of the river?" he said. "And does that still leave enough of a safe area in George Rogers to hold enough people?"

Contact Lake Oswego Review reporter Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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