The Fiery Festival Issue: Flares

We need to talk about flares

The Fiery Festival Issue: Flares

Photographer: Trevor EalesVirtual Festivals on 15 July 2014

We festie-types love fire. Campfires, fire jugglers, firework displays or even processions of wax flares - nothing adds to the summer night atmos like firelight.
But while brightly-coloured distress flares make for dramatic crowd photos, chaos and mild crowd injuries during The Libertines performance at British Summer Time in London's Hyde Park last weekend prompted the NME to ask fans if it's time they were eliminated. The result was overall no, with a majority of 60% in favour of flares.

Eight people were taken to hospital as revellers towards the front were crushed in dangerous crowd surges and another 30 had to be treated on site for minor injuries. Festival director Jim King told NME that fans attempting to bring flares (which were prohibited) into the show had them confiscated and were then refused entry, but some people "still managed to smuggle some in". He said: "We then ejected two people who let them off on the night."

The online discussion has since shifted to a broader concern about crowd control but anecdotally, flares contributed to the panic, and many of those in attendance at Hyde Park blamed the organisers. Blogger Gillian Fish asked: "If they were supposed to be checking people's belongings on the way in how come so many got in with fireworks and flares? Yet people had umbrellas confiscated and CEREAL BARS!". "You are very lucky that you are not dealing with the aftermath of a fatality" suggested another user on the event's Facebook page.

Designed to burn brighter for longer, distress flares reach temperatures of 1600°C and can cause fires or burns long after they've gone out. A Coventry steward who tried to stamp one out in 2012 was injured when it melted his shoe. In crowds, flares or smoke bombs cause smoke inhalation injuries and panic or asthma attacks. A man was killed by a flare at a football match in Cardiff in 1993, and a 14-year-old died in Bolivia just last year, while a flare started at the Buenos Aires nightclub fire killed 94 music fans back in 2004.

Distress flares are used at sea to alert coastguards and, mostly for this reason, remain legal. They're not categorised and controlled under the Fireworks (Safety) Regulations 1997 because they're not designed for entertainment. Perhaps this is why nearly a third of fans surveyed by the Premier League last year wrongly believed they were less dangerous than fireworks. UK football's resulting education campaign stresses specific laws against taking distress flares into sporting events, and enforceable match bans.

Most festivals now explicitly ban fireworks and pyrotechnics, yet many were observed near the front at Kasabian's Glastonbury Sunday night set, and Arcade Fire actually thanked fans for flares lit for them during their headline performance. The event's fire guardians, Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service, eager to publicise the dangers of camping gas and Chinese sky lanterns, had no flare-related fires to report.

However, there are some laws available to police. After T In The Park 2011 a 22-year-old filmed with a flare near the front of a packed Deadmau5 crowd was told in court that by causing sudden movement in the packed crowd he had threatened public order in a way which justified a jail sentence. At last year's event, police reported five people for possessing or using flares or smoke bombs, who were either ejected or arrested on site.

By Hope Wisechild.

What's your experience of distress flares at festivals? Should they be banned or should we keep the flares alight?

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