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They Didn’t Start the Fire. Here’s Why

Redmoon’s executive creative director gives more details about went wrong Saturday.

In late August cedar siding was attached to the model houses that would become the centerpieces of Redmoon’s Great Chicago Fire Festival. For more photos from the construction, view this gallery.   Photo: Ratko Radojcic

Redmoon Theater executive creative director Jim Lasko said Monday that pilot lights failed to ignite at Saturday’s Great Chicago Fire Festival because too much attention had been given to preventing a blaze and not enough to creating one.

The pilot-light malfunction deprived an estimated 30,000 spectators of the promised spectacle of three burning model houses floating on the Chicago River between State Street and Columbus Drive.

“There were a number of safeties in place,” Lasko said Monday after emerging from a day of meetings with Redmoon and the city’s Deparatment of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “The units inside electrically ignite and heat the pilot, which then starts the flame, and only once there’s a flame will the propane release down the line.”

On top of that, there was a suppression system installed in case things got out of hand: “The water used to cool the lighting instrument and the generator and pumps of the suppression system caused enough moisture to shut down our electrical impulse.” Redmoon’s fatal error? “Our backup system relied on that same impulse.”

The $2 million public theater display, which the Tribune reported had received $350,000 in city money and took nearly five years to produce, was intended to commemorate the city’s rebirth from its 1871 inferno by burning three model Victorians on the Chicago River. Only a few of the structures’ pilot lights actually ignited, and after angry spectators took to chanting for flames around 10 p.m., Redmoon cut its losses and made do with fireworks.

Twitter users have had a field day with snarky criticism, and Ald. Ed Burke (14) on Monday demanded a full accounting from the Mayor’s office, calling the production a “fiasco.”

An inch of rain had fallen in Chicago the two days before Saturday’s festival, this following a 10-day dry spell that WGN reported was the city’s longest in almost three years.

Asked whether the issues with the pilot lights could have been dodged with on-site testing, Lasko said maybe, but that doing so would not have been practical. “The bottom line is you can’t test something like this on site. It would’ve meant shutting down the river for an extra day, building an extra house. It would have been prohibitively expensive.”

Referencing the festival’s philanthropic arm, Lasko says the event saw its share of success. “We spent seven months building strong relationships throughout the city, and I hope people won’t get too distracted by this failed ignition.”

Indeed, Tribune theater critic Chris Jones noted in his otherwise-negative review that “it felt like downtown Chicago was teeming with community and excitement in the minutes before the show, offering up a rare coming together of Chicagoans of all stripes.”

Lasko offered this silver lining: “We’ll be able to re-use 90 percent of our materials next year.”

Monday afternoon the mostly intact models continued to float on the Chicago River. Lasko said cranes would be removing them on Wednesday, as previously scheduled.

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