When fireworks start booming every July, state Rep. Marie Poulson says upset people bombard her with letters, emails and phone calls.
“I hear from veterans with PTSD,” the Cottonwood Heights Democrat said. “People say their pets go crazy with the noise. Some are concerned about air quality.”
Poulson and some of her constituents hate the too-often 2 a.m. blasts that ruin sleep.
“But the final straw came this year when one of my neighbors lost about half of their house, and 25 acres were burned” from a fire caused by aerial fireworks, Poulson said.
So she opened a bill file to draft legislation to revise fireworks laws, as have several colleagues. Proposals under consideration range from a total ban to cutting back on how many days — and hours — fireworks are allowed, types that are permitted and possibly giving cities clear power to ban them.
Even Rep. Jim Dunnigan — the Taylorsville Republican who sponsored the bill that legalized aerial fireworks in 2011 — is looking at reworking laws after concerns during this year’s sometimes-destructive fireworks season amid dry conditions.
But he opposes a total fireworks ban that Poulson and others say is now on the table.
“Many people like to celebrate the independence of our nation and the founding of our state” around July 4 and July 24, Dunnigan said. “Even if we ban fireworks entirely, people will still drive to our neighboring state [of Wyoming] and acquire them and bring them back.”
He said while “I’ve received a number of concerns about the number of days” fireworks are allowed — two full weeks in July — “I’ve also heard from people who like their fireworks and they are saying, ‘Don’t change anything.’”
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, who also opened a bill file on fireworks but says he will follow Poulson’s lead on the issue, said, “My impression is the public doesn’t want to do away with fireworks, but they want to have a serious dialogue about when and how to allow them.”
All lawmakers who are currently drafting fireworks legislation say they are considering cutting back on how many days Utahns can legally shoot them off.
When aerial fireworks were legalized in 2011, they could be used during the entire month of July. After complaints, Dunnigan scaled that back to three days before and three days after the Independence Day and Pioneer Day holidays, which is still two full weeks.
“Why do we have to allow fireworks on so many days to celebrate two holidays?” asks Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, another lawmaker who is drafting fireworks legislation.
She said she is told that one of every nine or 10 veterans in the state suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and exploding fireworks make it worse. “Shortening the time that fireworks are allowed could help them.”
Dunnigan said he is considering cutting back on the number of days allowed and is talking to a variety of stakeholders about that. But, he said, “We’re still determining what policy change should be made.”
Poulson also is concerned about the hours that fireworks are allowed. They are permitted from 11 a.m to 11 p.m. on most days in the period and extended to midnight on July 4 and July 24. They are allowed from 11 a.m. on New Year’s Eve to 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day.
Outside of holidays, “It seems a little late when people have to work the next day,” Poulson said, adding many people also ignore the deadlines anyway and set them off in early-morning hours.
Another possible revision that all lawmakers working on the issue say is a likely change is giving cities more power to restrict or even ban fireworks.
The city council in Cottonwood Heights, where Poulson lives, voted to ban aerial fireworks after the fire that burned the home in her neighborhood — but the city attorney warned the move could draw lawsuits because of state law.
“They could use the fire marshal to ban fireworks in certain areas based on conditions,” Poulson said, but under current state law a city council cannot clearly “make the decision to abandon fireworks or not.”
Briscoe agrees. “The way the law is written, it’s a tightrope. The fire marshal has to go in and draw or describe by street or creek bed where people cannot set off fireworks” because of dry conditions.
Poulson adds, “I am looking at giving those local communities the power to make their own decisions. In our Legislature, we talk about local control all the time, and then we make decisions that tie the hands of those communities. Every city is not the same, and every year is not the same.”
She pointed to polls to show support. A Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll last month showed 91 percent of Utah voters favor allowing cities to ban fireworks in times of extreme fire danger.
Dunnigan also says he is considering changes to give cities “more authority on where they can ban fireworks” — and has had discussions with the state fire marshal, state forester, the governor’s office and local fire authorities.
“I’m sure we’ll have a discussion on the types of fireworks” allowed, Dunnigan said.
Poulson said she is especially concerned about use of aerial fireworks in dry conditions, when those who launch them are not sure where they will land. That happened in the recent instance when 25 acres and some homes were burned in her neighborhood.
"We've been extremely lucky" more homes haven't been destroyed, said Iwamoto. “But this year there was a lot of damage,” and it’s time to talk again about whether it is wise to allow aerials and other fireworks.
In addition to fire danger, there are pollution concerns.
During a month that already is a bad one for air quality and people with poor health are warned to stay inside, the state allows fireworks on top of it, said Briscoe. “To me, it‘s crazy.”
Poulson says a statewide ban should be discussed, although she figures it has little chance of passage.
“It’s not off the table, but mostly what I am looking at is allowing local communities to make their own decisions,” she said.
“I’m not really optimistic that a statewide ban is something that could pass the Legislature,” she said, in part because many politicians want to protect the sales tax revenue that fireworks generate.
Iwamoto said concern over fireworks “seems to grow every year” — and could lead to a total ban over time if problems are not solved.
Dunnigan said many people just want to preserve the fun and entertainment of appropriate fireworks, and doubts a total ban would pass or is wise — but says reasonable limitations are needed.
The Tribune-Hinckley poll last month showed that a small majority of Utahns — by a 53-46 margin — still favor the current fireworks law.