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Fireworks explode over Bend the night of Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. The 15-minute pyrotechnic display thrilled some residents of the Central Oregon city and irked others.

Surprise firework show delights, angers Bend residents

BEND — Around 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16, the sky above Bend’s west side lit up with a vivid pyrotechnic display — more than 1,800 shells whistling, popping and exploding in bright and glittering colors above the Les Schwab Amphitheater.

In all, the professional display by local pyrotechnician Gary Mattison lasted around 15 minutes.

But Nov. 16 was no holiday. There were no festivals occurring in town, no notable recent sports victories.

Residents, outside their homes and online, were confused. More than 200 people called 911.

In actuality, an anonymous donor had sponsored a professional fireworks show to “bring happiness and cheer to the community,” a fact that came to light through the circulation of a post on the Old Mill’s Facebook page that appeared about the same time the fireworks began.

“A private donor has sponsored a brief firework show that will be visible to most Bend residents this evening,” the post read. “They hope to bring a bit of happiness and cheer to the community, and to remind us that if you have the means, please consider supporting our Central Oregon non-profits this holiday season.”

Comments on the Facebook post quickly displayed the division that’s been a defining feature of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the civil unrest going on right now, it was so scary!” wrote one person. “I am all for supporting nonprofits, but this caused fear to so many people and animals. If only we had known in advance!”

A number of people chastised the organizers and the Old Mill on behalf of dogs and people with post-traumatic stress disorder, notably military veterans. Some noted that many Bend residents, including many in the less-affluent parts of town, could not see the display, but could hear it.

Still, many people defended the show and asked that their neighbors not be so uptight.

“Covid has made people bitter and mean,” one person wrote. “They don’t want anyone celebrating anything anymore! Great job on the fireworks.”

Bend Mayor Sally Russell lives in a part of town where she could hear the display but could not see it. She went to bed unsure what she’d listened to. In the morning, Marney Smith, director of the amphitheater, called with an explanation and a promise O ld Mill officials would think differently when considering future shows.

Russell said she’s received much feedback, as well, ranging from thrilled to the incensed.

“We’re all on edge,” she said. “Some people want to think the best; some people want to go to a darker place. It’s indicative of the way we live now. …

“I think the surprise came from the community not knowing what it was ahead of time, so many didn’t know where the sound came from,” Russell said.

Fireworks shows do not require an event permit with the city or the approval of the Bend City Council. There is also no requirement for organizers to notify the public ahead of time. But the people behind Monday’s surprise show did have to pass several steps to get a general fireworks display permit in Bend, according to Bend Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Patricia Connolly.

First, they had to apply with Bend Police Department and Bend fire officials to get their display site inspected. In Bend, the city’s risk management office must inspect the organizer’s insurance. Next, an organizer must get the approval from the Office of the State Fire Marshal, and fire and police officials must sign the permit.

According to the permit on file with Bend fire officials and sent to The Bulletin, the show’s sponsor was Watson Companies, which owns Redmond-based residential developer Hayden Homes and the nonprofit housing organization First Story.

Calls to Watson Companies president Hayden Watson were not returned.

Over the past 15 years, the public hasn’t been notified about numerous fireworks shows around Bend, including at Bend Elks games at Vince Genna Stadium, Summit High School’s homecoming, Oregon WinterFest and weddings, said Connolly.

“In this case, it seems the intent of the Old Mill was to be mindful of the risk of COVID-19, where events such as this would draw a large crowd and potentially cause spread of the disease,” Connolly said.

Russell said the episode highlights how difficult it is to hold any kind of community event during the pandemic.

“This was well-intended,” she said. “And you know, doing things now is difficult. Many people are experiencing some very real hardships. We’re all looking at ways to lift people’s spirits.”

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