Ban fireworks during drought and bust the Utahns who light them, Robert Gehrke writes

Rat out your neighbor? With the fire risk as high as it is, that may be what it takes.

The Traverse Fire burns near homes in Lehi, Utah, Sunday, June 28, 2020. Officials say fireworks caused the wildfire and forced evacuations early Sunday morning. (Justin Reeves via AP)

Last July, a group of three teens were setting off fireworks in Washington County one got away and, just like that, the Turkey Farm Road Fire was ignited.

By the time it was done, it burned nearly 12,000 acres, including part of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. It cost $2.5 million to fight the blaze, more to rehabilitate the area, and the three teens and one of the parents responsible were criminally charged with use of illegal fireworks and obstruction of justice.

But really, the Turkey Farm fire was not all that unique.

In Draper, teens playing with a Roman candle late last June sparked the Traverse Mountain fire, threatening neighborhoods in both Draper and Lehi.

Fireworks were blamed for starting 68 fires last year. Still, every year, the fireworks stands pop up, the ads begin airing encouraging people to make the short drive to Evanston, and some part of the state inevitable ends up burning.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

This year, with the worst drought in 50 years and record high temperatures, the trees and grass are as dry as they’ve ever been, making the fire risk especially acute.

We need to ban fireworks statewide and to devote resources to enforcing the ban. But that won’t happen, thanks to the Republican Legislature.

Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday that, if he could, he would ban fireworks in areas with exceptional drought, currently 97% of the state, but his legal counsel informed him Wednesday night that the Legislature has denied him the power to do that.

“I would have imposed a fireworks ban. What I think should happen, I think we should impose a ban statewide and allow communities to designate safe zones where they want to have fireworks allowed,” Cox said in his monthly PBS Utah news conference. “I’ve told the Legislature I think it’s a terrible idea not to have additional restrictions this year. They haven’t shown any interest in doing anything more around that.”

So when Utah burns this year — because it will burn — and fireworks are the cause, you can put at least part of the blame on the Utah Legislature.

Local mayors and city councils are trying to step up and protect residents’ lives and property. But, again, the Utah Legislature — in its infinite wisdom and infinite love of things that go “boom” — have limited how and where those restrictions can be imposed.

Under the law, municipalities can only restrict fireworks in areas bordering forests and wildlands or areas where the local fire marshal says hazardous conditions exist.

Like Cox, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said if he could he would ban fireworks everywhere in the city this year. It’s just that dry. But the town’s leaders are still going to push the restrictions as far as they can possibly go under the law.

Normally, Millcreek has prohibited fireworks east of Wasatch Boulevard, basically just in the area right at the foothills and the mouths of Millcreek and Parleys canyons. This year, the council plans to ban fireworks everywhere east of 900 East — the same street Salt Lake City uses for its ban.

“This is an exceptional year,” he said. “The humidity in the fuels is so low, the concern is we could have an urban conflagration like they had in those towns by Medford, Oregon.”

He’s talking about the Alameda Fire, which ignited near the towns of Talent and Phoenix, jumped from tree-to-tree, devastating the two towns. By the time it was done, thousands of people had to be evacuated, the fire burned 3,200 acres, destroyed 3,000 buildings and killed three people.

A lot of cities have already adopted restrictions, and places like American Fork, Bluffdale, Brigham City, Farmington. Cottonwood Heights, Sandy, Murray and others have them in the works.

Salt Lake City, as in years past, has banned fireworks in the foothills surrounding the city.

“The administration has done all it can do under the current state statute,” said Lindsay Nikola, spokeswoman for Mayor Erin Mendenhall, “but we would absolutely be supportive of state-wide action on personal firework use, or options within the statute to do more during years of extreme drought and fire danger.”

Millcreek’s council will formally adopt their restrictions at a council meeting later this month, but Silvestrini is trying to get the word out to people early, before they buy fireworks, because he knows that once they do, they’re going to set them off — whether or not there’s a ban on the books.

And there are those, as we saw with mask mandates during COVID, who are petulant and obnoxious enough they will probably set of more fireworks if they are told they can’t.

Which raises the issue of enforcement.

Firework bans are only effective if people abide by them voluntarily or if they are aggressively enforced — and that isn’t easy to do.

A few years ago, Silvestrini said, he was watching a neighbor shooting fireworks off a balcony that started a fire behind Eastwood Elementary, threatening to burn up to the base of Grandeur Peak. Crews got the fire out, but when investigators knocked on the door, the guy said he hadn’t been lighting fireworks and, no, they couldn’t look inside his house without a warrant.

“A lot of times they feel like they’re chasing ghosts,” the mayor said. “It’s really hard to enforce, but we will be attempting to do so.”

Unified Police and Unified Fire will have joint teams patrolling for illegal fireworks, which is good — but still not enough.

As much as I hate to encourage people to rat on their neighbors, it may be the only realistic way to have the eyes and ears where we need them. The risk is that great and the consequences that severe.

Or, we can actually do the right thing and forego the obnoxious blasts and sparks for the sake of our neighbors and our community.

“We just went through a pandemic where people made a lot of sacrifices,” Silvestrini said. “We are capable of making sacrifices. And it’s not too much to ask, in order to avoid burning our city down, to cool it on fireworks this year.”