Organisers of an annual music, arts and lifestyle festival on the edge of Burrinjuck Dam in Wee Jasper say their event is safe despite objections from NSW Police.
Yass Valley Council has given Dragon Dreaming Festival the go-ahead between 2021 and 2023 with entry to 4500 patrons, nearly double the ticket holders who attended back in 2014.
The organisers asked for the festival to be approved up until 2025, however council limited the time frame to allow an earlier review of the development application.
Police in the Hume Police District objected to the approval, arguing drug consumption at the festival’s remote location poses a risk.
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It would take emergency services an estimated one hour and 45 minutes to transport a patient by air or road from the festival to a critical care facility in the event of an overdose.
Police concern was amplified when a 23-year-old woman died from an overdose at the festival in 2015.
“Police raise objections to this event being held in Wee Jasper each year, and more fervently since the tragic death in 2015,” said Yass District Inspector Alison Brennan. “Police were unable to prevent the event from going ahead, but provided ample notice that any future development application at this isolated location would be objected to.”
A coronial inquest into the 2015 fatality reviewed council’s decision to approve the festival’s development application in 2014. However, no findings were made and council’s solicitors concluded that the council had satisfied its duty to ensure any risks associated with the event, specifically illicit drug use, were appropriately controlled.
Under the current development application, organisers must have police present at the festival, funded by a user-pays model.
Organisers had asked the council to remove the condition based on the cost and said they already contract security, medical services and DanceWize NSW to provide an alcohol and drug outreach service at the event.
“Our aim is to provide the most sustainable, ecologically positive, professionally-run event that showcases local and upcoming artists alongside some of Australia’s best electronic, instrumental and live musicians in an environment that is safe, inviting and stimulating for attendees from diverse backgrounds and from a wide range of age groups,” said festival directors.
However, NSW Police previously charged less than cost recovery for policing the event, said Inspector Brennan.
Police have also recommended the festival contracts an onsite ambulance to reduce the transport time from the medical tent to the helicopter landing site. Organisers said they would talk to NSW Ambulance.
Inspector Brennan also said the remote location would make evacuation of the festival in the event of a bushfire difficult. The festival site is surrounded by dense scrub and located at the end of a 4.5km unsealed lane.
Under the festival’s current bushfire management plan, attendees would be sheltered onsite by the edge of Burrinjuck Lake during a bushfire
The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) said there was “no realistic scenario allowing the safe [departure] of all persons” and that the current plan “would not guard against smoke inhalation”.
Despite noting the risks, the RFS supports a future event.
Wee Jasper residents say they don’t consider their home to be remote and that they shouldn’t be prevented from having events such as the festival due to their rural location.
A long-term Wee Jasper resident said they had been to the festival and never seen any trouble.
“I believe you would find more trouble in Yass on a Friday or Saturday night,” they said. “I had no problems in allowing my young teenage son to stay down there for the weekend, both as a festival-goer and as a volunteer.”
The Wee Jasper Community Association raises funds each year through its food stall at the festival and those funds have gone towards an arts program at the Wee Jasper Public School; the local volunteer bushfire brigade; and maintenance of the village’s 50-year-old memorial hall.
It’s estimated about $9000 is raised for the community at each festival.
Helen Cathles, who hosts the festival on her Cooradigbee property, said the festival also brings money to the town of Yass with ticket holders and organisers buying food and fuel there.
The council estimates the festival brings between $350,000 and $615,000 to the region with convenience and grocery stores benefiting the most.
While the Dragon Dreaming organisers have council approval for the events, they still need to comply with whatever public health orders – including COVID-19 restrictions – are applicable when they are staged.