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Providence awaits the return of its famous WaterFire event

Thanks to the pandemic, the crowd-pleaser was cancelled in 2020 for the first time in 25 years. This year, it’s different, but it’s back

Several fires of the WaterFire installation have been freshly lit at sundown in the Rhode Island School of Design section of Water Place Park in downtown Providence in 2018.BARNABY EVANS

PROVIDENCE — WaterFire, during which performers in boats float down the Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers, setting braziers of wood on fire, will be back for 2021.

In pre-pandemic times, crowds of people lined the shore to take in the immersive artistic experience. There’s music and dancing and plenty of glow sticks. Last year was the first time in two and a half decades that Providence didn’t have a WaterFire river lighting.

This year, with COVID-19 vaccines becoming more widely available and the pandemic’s grip loosening, tourism boosters and city officials are looking to celebrate the event’s return.

“We do this because it changes people’s lives,” Peter Mello, the managing director and co-CEO of WaterFire Providence, said Monday. “It really does. It’s not only an economic driver. People will say, ‘I moved to Providence because of WaterFire.’”


Spogga, a performance artist, on the bow of fire-tending boat Prometheus at WaterFire Providence in 2018.Paul E. Kandarian

Though the nonprofit WaterFire Providence has an arts center on Valley Street and held arts events and productions during the pandemic, it is best known for putting on the spectacular lighting events in the river downtown. Officials said it has struggled financially without them.

Money and public health conditions will be major deciding factors when the events return later this year. In the past, there have been 10 to 12 full WaterFire lightings all along the river, plus a few smaller ones in Waterplace Park. For 2021, people can expect just three or four lightings, organizers said. The events usually take place from April to October, but this year will likely be held in late summer or early fall.

Because the pandemic is still ongoing, organizers are considering ways they can manage crowds, or even screen attendees for COVID-19 symptoms if necessary. The on-shore activities, like food and entertainment, may be scaled back. The location might even be different, farther south near the new Providence River pedestrian bridge rather than in Waterplace Park, to allow more space for social distancing.


Mello said organizers try not to talk a lot about how much effort and work goes into WaterFire. They want it to be like the Magic Kingdom: grand and magical and a little mysterious. But it takes about two months to set up. The braziers aren’t even in the river right now. The boats are still in storage.

“If people really love WaterFire, we need them to step up and support us,” Mello said. “People don’t realize what it takes to put on a world-class art experience.”

WaterFire Providence recently launched a TV commercial soliciting donations through 401Gives, which is a statewide day of giving on April 1 run by the United Way of Rhode Island.

Kristen Adamo, president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she’ll be advocating for WaterFire to receive some of the federal funding the state is expected to get from the recent COVID rescue package.

“We’re at the point now with this pandemic that we have to worry about the things that make Providence unique,” Adamo said. “This is the only place in the world where something like this is done with regularity. To lose that would be awful.”

Barnaby Evans, the creator of WaterFire and the nonprofit’s executive artistic director, said in an interview that the recent commercial about the event’s return sparked a huge reaction. People are looking for a bit of hope in a dark year, he said, and WaterFire has always been about bringing people together in the community.


Evans said organizers will follow the science and the guidance from public health officials as they work to put on the events again in 2021. They’d thought about staging a WaterFire lighting in December, he said, but Rhode Island, like the rest of the region, saw a huge spike in COVID cases and they had to scuttle the plan.

As things stand now, though, “it’s looking good,” Evans said, followed by two quick knocks on wood.

WaterFire Providence has been working with the city and the state to make sure the lighting event returns safely this year.

“WaterFire is a significant economic driver for businesses in Providence, and they’re important in the quality of life for residents and tourists alike,” said Matt Sheaff, the state’s acting chief marketing officer.

For Stephanie Fortunato, the director of the Department of Art, Culture and Tourism for the city of Providence who also sits on WaterFire’s board, planning for outdoor events in the coming year is an increasingly large part of her work. There’s PVDFest, whose organizers said recently that they were “busy reimagining a new festival experience.” There are flea markets. There are road races.

But above all, there’s WaterFire.

“One of the things we learned from the last year is that people are hungry for outdoor activities and the uses of our public space,” Fortunato said. “We are working very closely with event organizers of all sizes to be able to think through how we can come back together in our public spaces, and how we can do that safely.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.