Local police scramble to adjust as eclipse festival attendance more than doubles permitted 30,000 person threshold

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Thousands of vehicles pour into Prineville on Wednesday afternoon before the eclipse, causing a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam several miles long.

Sometimes, things don't always turn out as expected.

This is what local law enforcement personnel discovered and faced as they dealt with the sudden population explosion brought about by the recent Symbiosis eclipse festival.

Crook County had approved a mass gathering permit for 30,000 people and, according to Prineville Police Chief Dale Cummins and Crook County Sheriff John Gautney, they developed strategies based on those numbers.

But the numbers changed — they changed dramatically. Gautney said that festival organizers finally said about 28,000 cars ended up on the Big Summit Prairie site.

"If you look at what went through town, we figured very conservatively about 2.5 people per vehicle," he said. "That's 70,000 people right there, and we know they were above that."

To compound matters, the Symbiosis visitors arrived Wednesday, a day earlier than anticipated and a day before the local agencies had planned to open their emergency operations center.

"We had to scramble around to get people to work, and we opened the EOC and started working things out of there that night," Gautney recalls.

Officials dealt with a motor home crash that evening and other traffic-related issues that clogged up Third Street, State Highway 126 to the west and U.S. Highway 26 east of town.

The traffic difficulties escalated Thursday, reaching a point by early evening where cars were backed up from the festival gate to the eastern border of Prineville — a more than 30-mile traffic jam that made national news.

"We had issues with traffic backing up because they weren't able to get into the event," Gautney noted. "They didn't plan on what happens if the internet doesn't work up there. All of their stuff they were doing up there was scanning over the internet. They claim that was the holdup — it was taking a long time to get stuff scanned through."

Law enforcement wasn't expecting a traffic jam so severe it threatened to literally lock down the main east-west passage through Prineville, so an alternate route was developed on the fly. Officials seeking the help of Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon State Police decided to temporarily shut down Highway 26 east of Combs Flat Road and direct festival-goers out Paulina Highway to the site.

"We had other options, we had other roads," Gautney admits, "but some of those were not acceptable for motor homes and trailers."

"I got some heat from businesses east of Combs Flat because of that closure," Cummins added, "but it was necessary. We did it mainly in the evening when they wouldn't have business anyway."

It took about four hours for the traffic on Highway 26 to clear enough to reopen it and as local officials tried to keep traffic moving, they leaned on the festival organizers to pick up the check-in pace.

"It was literally calling them on a daily basis saying you need to step up and get this thing going," Cummins said.

The massive traffic jam ultimately dissipated by Friday evening when the bulk of the visitors to the festival had finally made it inside the gates. At that point, local law enforcement tackled the next issue — another one that officials believe would not have existed had only 30,000 attended.

"So the problem we have is we now have a crowd up there that is unmanageable from a law enforcement standpoint with the resources that we have," Gautney said. "With the number of people that was up there, we chose to manage from the outside."

Contracted security was consequently expected to handle all of the issues that would arise inside the festival gates, unless a person crime such as assault or rape occurred. Local officials, therefore, believe that certain law violations likely occurred on site that would ordinarily result in an arrest — especially drug-related offenses.

"We could have probably arrested thousands of people in there for a drug crime of some sort," Gautney said, "but we don't have the resources or the facility to handle that. Besides that, had we gone in there and started making arrests for those types of crimes, we would have created more problems than we could have handled. We could have created a violent response, so you have to look at those situations and basically pick your battles."

Yet even with that approach, local officials found that festival security personnel were not quite up to the task of keeping law and order on the inside.

"We got drug into the inside to handle things that security couldn't handle," Gautney said. "The security group that they had there was inefficient from a security standpoint."

When all the dust had settled late last week, local officials had accumulated enough overtime expense that a $10,000 cash bond required for the mass gathering permit is expected to come far from covering it. However, Gautney points out that another $500,000 bond was required to cover costs ranging from overtime expenses to environmental health costs and more.

"So that is something that the county will have to look at in a post operation to see how they are going to go after the company, or if they are going to recover any costs the county had," he said.

Although law enforcement officials say they were dealt an unexpected and challenging hand, they believe they handled it as well as could be expected.

"We not only handled what (traffic) we assumed was coming and had contingency plans for, but a lot more than that came up, and we made it look smooth," Cummins said.

Gautney added that the number of events that transpired outside of the festival were very light when compared against the tens of thousands who showed up for the event.

Both law enforcement leaders attribute that success to a well-structured partnership not only between the sheriff's office and police department, but Oregon State Police, ODOT and many other agencies throughout the region that spent months preparing for a surge of visitors.

"The sheriff and I have a good relationship, and there is no posturing or jurisdictional (issues)," Cummins said. "If he needs bodies, we provide them. "If I need bodies, he does. I think that is not always the case in every county."

In addition, local officials made an effort to keep residents and visitors alike up to date on whatever issues arose through the use of the police department's Facebook page. Staffed by three department members who collectively worked 24/7, messages about crimes, traffic, accidents and more were delivered within minutes of developments.

"All of us recognize that communication is important and how do you communicate with people who are really passing through and landing at a location," Cummins said of the social media use. "They are getting updates while they are stuck in traffic of why they are stopped and what's coming up, and that can really lower the frustration of what's going on."

The Facebook updates also resonated with local residents who, along with the visitors, showered the department and local law enforcement in general with praise.

"We got a lot of positive feedback," Cummins remarked.

What didn't hurt, as officials dealt with the unexpectedly high numbers and festival security issues, was the type of people they encountered throughout the event. Most community members and law enforcement officials had pleasant and polite exchanges with the festival-goers, who routinely expressed their gratitude for the hospitality the community showed them throughout the week.

And though the visitors exhibited a similar appearance to the historically difficult Rainbow Family members that passes through town on certain summers, the similarities ended there.

"You have to remember that this event wasn't cheap. To get in, you have to put some money down. I think that brought a different group of individuals," Cummins said. "It was certainly a different culture than we are used to in Crook County, but not a criminal culture."

The final phase for authorities of dealing with the festival and its many visitors came last week, as people left the event in waves that again clogged Third Street, though not to the same degree as the previous week.

By Friday, the parade of dust-covered buses and motorhomes bearing out-of-state plates gave way to a group of bow hunters making the trip to the Ochocos for opening day. About 3,000 die-hards still remained at the site — which officially closed at 2 p.m. Thursday — but Gautney and Cummins said they were finally ready to exhale.

"It worked out," Cummins concluded.

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