Vinotok fire discussion gets tense as town officials and organizers look for a way to move forward with 2017 bonfire

“This is a tough one.”

By Alissa Johnson

A Crested Butte Town Council work session about Vinotok turned into a somewhat confrontational public comment session on Tuesday, January 3. At issue was the management of the bonfire, as well as the perception among Vinotok volunteers that the council was unfairly targeting the event.

The council scheduled the work session in response to chief marshal Mike Reily’s report on the Vinotok fire, which was shared with the council at an early November meeting and covered by the Crested Butte News. At the time, the council decided that a work session was in order before the end of the year to discuss the fire. Vinotok representatives at the work session were upset that they weren’t part of that initial discussion.

Mayor Glenn Michel attempted to open the meeting on a positive note, telling the audience that it was his favorite event in town. “I want to dispel any notion out there that somehow this is against Vinotok. We have to balance that great community event with our responsibility as elected officials to ensure the safety of our community.”

That didn’t prevent the meeting from becoming, at times, contentious.

Fire concerns

Chief Reily emphasized that the marshals support Vinotok as a whole, but have issues with the 2016 fire. It was too large, was not built as planned, and would have been called off had it not snowed that day. He also suggested that, given the valuation of nearby buildings, the $1 million insurance policy carried by the event could be easily maxed out should a structure fire occur.

Reily was also frustrated with insinuations that the all-volunteer Crested Butte Fire Protection District was unsupportive of community events and could be replaced by another fire department during the event. He wasn’t sure he could trust the organizers to sign off on future bonfires at the Chamber.

Fire chief Ric Ems confirmed that the fire district had no issues with the rest of the event. He also confirmed that the Vinotok fire is one of two events where the district hires people to watch it, the other being the Chainless Race in June.

Reily summarized, saying, “We all respect the historic tradition, but public safety is our priority. Vinotok as a community partner should be prepared to work toward the same goal.”

“At this point, you’re not comfortable accepting a bonfire at the Four-way, that’s what we’re hearing from you?” Michel asked.

“I need assurances that we can guarantee the safety of that area and the neighborhood,” Reily responded.

Setting the record straight

Vinotok’s green man Kyle Ryan spoke first on behalf of Vinotok, reading a statement to correct what he felt were misperceptions and misinformation about Vinotok and the fire, referencing the Crested Butte News article covering the initial fire discussion. He made it known that town staff had praised Vinotok organizers during an October debrief meeting, and that the event has gone 32 years without fire damage or injury. He was also frustrated that the council discussed the fire in November without Vinotok members present.

Both Michel and town manager Dara MacDonald confirmed that the topic came up during staff updates, and the council responded by scheduling the work session so Vinotok members could be present.

Things started to get tense when Ryan questioned the manner in which Reily oversaw the fire and implied that the fire should not fall under his jurisdiction. Michel took offense.

“We’re not going to attack Mike Reily. He’s my staff. Speak to the council please, all right?” Michel said.

Ryan agreed and finished his statement, emphasizing that Vinotok plays a role in creating the spirit of town, and that there was no ill intent in the management of the fire.

The issue at hand

Michel clarified the significance of the issue at hand. “When the chief marshal says he can’t support the fire currently at the Four-way, what does that mean for the council approving the event?” he asked MacDonald.

“When you have two critical safety organizations that you rely on during these types of events telling you that they are unwilling to sign off or recommend approval of the event, that puts you in a somewhat tenuous position in terms of approving the event. Were anything to go wrong, the claim could potentially be made you were acting outside your scope of authority… The staff recommendation is to approach doing that with caution,” MacDonald said.

Nearby residents added their concerns to the mix, including resident Cathy Steinberger, who has been vocal about her concerns and her desire to see the fire moved. She has dealt with smoke, embers on her patio furniture and fire retardants on her vehicles. “[The chamber parking lot] doesn’t feel like the right place anymore. Things have grown,” she said.

Neighbor Monica Dillon thanked the council for addressing the issue and felt it was time to move the fire. “You spent a lot of time trying to make the fire feasible at the Four-way and it didn’t work out,” she said, asking the council not to add a fire ring to the chamber parking lot as allotted in the town budget.

General frustration

As Michel attempted to steer discussion away from fire rings and back to the bonfire, Vinotok founder Marcie Telander expressed her impatience, saying, “Let’s get going.” With little time left in the meeting and no opportunity to extend it, she asked that a Vinotok spokesperson have time to speak. Zach Matthias then summarized a letter from JoeBob Merritt, who was responsible for the fire and the grump.

In the letter, Merritt took responsibility for the fire and unapproved changes but took issue with three main points: any accusation that there was willful disregard for the fire plan; councilmember Jim Schmidt’s previous comments that Vinotok had insulted the council; and the idea that the fire needs to be moved to a new location.

As the letter began to address Schmidt’s comments, Michel interrupted, saying that he did not want councilmembers to be attacked.

“These are not attacks,” Telander said, audibly frustrated.

When Michel asked if she was going to be able to keep it together, she argued that he should not take the comments personally. Matthias clarified that the letter was intended to correct the public record.

The letter went on to communicate Merritt’s willingness to participate in a design review of the 2016 fire and closed by encouraging the Town Council and staff to become more involved with the Vinotok tribe. Rather than vilify the ceremonial harvest or cultural leaders of the valley, he asked for a renewed investment in and commitment to creativity.

“It is the only time 250 local volunteers work to create the mythic space for friends to gather, to mend, to reap, to sew to burn. I encourage you, do not cower to the frightened and threatening few…” Matthias stopped reading.

“I don’t want to attack anybody,” he said, and while that drew some laughter in the room, Michel had a concern.

“Can I ask a question? I’m hearing an almost cavalier indifference toward neighborhood concern about a fire so close to their residential homes. Is the Vinotok committee addressing that and do they understand that as a representative of the community, we have to listen to that?” Michel asked.

“We absolutely understand … we want to make sure our concerns are heard as loudly,” Matthias continued.

“How do you respond to the fact that last year we worked really hard on this… and Vinotok kind of thumbed their nose and didn’t perform the way they said? How do I go forward trusting you again this year? What happened and who owns it?” Michel said.

“You’ve heard enough apologies,” Telander said.

Councilmember Chris Ladoulis jumped into the fray. “What I heard consistently is, ‘We’re a bunch of volunteers and creatives. Don’t fault us for not being able to build a safe fire.’ So if creatives can’t do it and [you’re suggesting] the marshals shouldn’t do it, and the fire department refuses to sign off on it… then what do you suggest?”

“More integrated oversight would be appreciated. We want to work with this town,” Matthias said.

“Chief Reily was at the fire and said it was too big, and they didn’t want to change it,” Michel responded.

Looking for a way forward

Toward the end of the discussion, Vinotok organizer Molly Murfee attempted to explain Vinotok organizers’ frustration to the council.

“Part of this arming up feeling that you’re getting from some of the folks that have spoken is because we’re feeling pretty attacked,” she said. “From my perspective of organizing the festival for eight years, there is a constant feeling of having to arm up and do battle… We’re asking for a little flexibility and a little understanding and a little appreciation of what we’re doing because it’s a phenomenal feat,” she said.

Michel still didn’t understand why the energy was being directed at the council, particularly since the council hadn’t said much during the meeting. And councilwoman Laura Mitchell asked, “Why are you vilifying us?”

“The Vinotok council feels the article that was in the paper was pretty nasty,” Murfee said.

“We didn’t write that,” Michel responded.

“I understand, but there were statements and quotes that we have to defend. That’s not our experience of the story,” Murfee answered.

While a few more comments were shared, including insights from a survey of business owners and their positive feelings about Vinotok, it became clear that the issue would not be solved in the time allotted. Another work session will be scheduled.

“This is a tough one. I hope the community sees this isn’t the council or the man. I’m a citizen, and I want this to happen in a way that protects the citizenry… We’ve got to make sure we’re not impinging on anyone’s rights or causing danger or stress to them,” Michel said.

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