Do fireworks bans stop wildfires?

One Salt Lake County Council member worries ‘mandate fatigue’ may cause bans to backfire

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake spectators enjoy a fireworks display, Sunday, July 4, 2010. Discussion of a statewide fireworks ban raises questions about whether such a ban will help prevent wildfires.

Last summer, three Utah teenagers’ illegal use of fireworks turned into a 12,000 acre wildfire. In total, 217 fires in Utah last year were caused by fireworks and other incendiary devices.

With Utah facing the most dangerously dry conditions it’s seen since the 1930s, what kind of firework regulation does the state need — and would anyone follow the rules anyway?

Last week, Governor Spencer Cox announced a ban on fireworks for state and unincorporated land due to the fire situation. He also noted that a statewide ban via the state legislature could be possible. With the ban on state lands, firework use is illegal on lands controlled by the state and lands that are not controlled by municipal governments. Under a statewide ban, the legislature would have the power to ban fireworks everywhere, although Cox has noted that a ban could be passed with several exceptions.

Some, including Salt Lake County Council Member Aimee Winder Newton, are calling for a softer approach to regulating fireworks: don’t regulate them. Instead, encourage Utahns not to use them.

“To me, it’s common sense,” said Kayli Yardley, a prevention tech at the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and Safe Lands. “You wouldn’t want to have a fire when you have such dangerously dry conditions, so why would you want a firework show with the potential of igniting a mountainside?”

County Council Member Newton tweeted last week that she hopes city residents will make the personal choice not to use fireworks and instead enjoy the events that cities put on on July 4 and July 24. Yet she opposes a ban on the grounds of “mandate fatigue” -- resentment and even active resistance to one more rule.

“What I worry about with a mandate is that we are going to have groups of people who are going to actively go buy fireworks that they weren’t planning to before, just to make a point,” she said. “This year, I think it’s best if we just make the personal decision. I know not everyone’s going to comply, but even if 25 percent of our population decides not to buy fireworks this year, that will be helpful.”

Even some supporters of a ban recognize that fatigue probably exists in Utah, especially when looking at how residents of the state responded to mask mandates. When the rules were instituted last spring, many Utahns argued that being forced to wear a mask inhibited their Constitutional rights.

Jay Evensen, an opinion columnist with the Deseret News, wrote a column calling for a fireworks mandate on a state level. Still, he said Utahns are not in the habit of responding well to rules.

“I agree that with what we’ve been through with the mask mandate, it’s shown how some people resist any attempt for the government to control what they do,” he said. “And I think a lot of people would view this similarly — ‘I’ve done fireworks my whole life, it’s a family tradition, and the government can’t tell me not to do it.’” But he said he tends to believe that these types of people will light fireworks regardless of whether there’s a ban, so they’re not a reason to avoid one.

For others, worrying about compliance simply isn’t a good enough reason to avoid a ban.

Katherine Montoya, a resident of Sandy who’s lived in various parts of Salt Lake County, said compliance will depend on enforcement of the ban.

“People who don’t like to follow the rules are always going to find a way to get around that,” she said. “I think it’s a matter of raising the penalties on setting them off. It’s a matter of letting people know that if they don’t follow the rules, this is the penalty they’ll have to go with —that this is the law.”

In Fresno, California, fireworks that explode or leave the ground are illegal. But according to recent reporting by the Fresno Bee, the Fresno Police Department received 600 firework complaints over the span of a single month.

So even though the legislation exists, enforcement can be difficult. Fresno’s fire investigator told the Bee that often the Police Department will receive complaints, but there won’t be an address attached. This leaves the Department with the difficult task of actually finding the offender. He said that the city is “as frustrated as the next person.”

According to Yardley, a similar enforcement problem would occur in Utah.

“I would love to say ‘yeah, let’s go after them,’” she said. “But realistically, I don’t think we have that level of enforcement available.”

Policing becomes an issue especially on holidays, Evensen said, when firefighters are too busy fighting fires to monitor private firework use.

There’s another piece of confusion that a ban wouldn’t solve, Utah Chief Deputy Fire Marshall Ted Black pointed out. A ban on using fireworks doesn’t mean a ban on fireworks being sold.

“It will impact some people,” Black said. “It won’t impact others. You can’t ban the sale of fireworks in the state of Utah. The perception by many is if they’re legal to buy, they’re legal to ignite. We’ve had dry holiday seasons before, we’ve had closures before, and we struggle every time because there’s people who don’t understand the law.”