Utah legislators light fuse that may change fireworks laws

Committee officially opens bill file that may give cities clear power to ban them, and consider other changes. <br>

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Lawmakers on Wednesday discussed amending the state's fireworks laws.

After a dry summer when fireworks ignited many blazes, Utah legislators lighted a fuse Wednesday toward possibly exploding current fireworks regulations.

The Business and Labor Interim Committee voted to open a “committee bill file” to amend fireworks laws. Legislative staff gives priority to drafting legislation that is deemed a committee bill over legislation sought by individual members.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, House chairman of the committee and author of legislation that legalized aerial fireworks in 2011, requested the move. ”It’s been a hot issue,” he quipped, adding he is not yet sure what exactly will be in it.

“I think that maybe we can still have fun, but maybe not quite so long.”<br>— Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville.<br>

Other legislators also have opened individual bill files on fireworks to explore everything from a total ban to cutting back on how many days and hours they are allowed, types that are permitted and possibly giving cities clear power to ban them.

After the committee action Wednesday, Dunnigan met later to discuss how to change fireworks laws with a variety of interested groups — from fireworks manufacturers to city officials and fire departments.

“It was a productive meeting. We heard from people [with views ranging from] we want a ban of all fireworks” to those who “want no changes,” he later told the House Republican Caucus.

However, he said, “One of the things I think we will be able to agree on is shortening the number of days” that fireworks are allowed, Dunnigan said.

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.

“I think that maybe we can still have fun, but maybe not quite so long,” Dunnigan said.

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, has also opened a bill file that she said will look at how long fireworks may be allowed, among other issues.

“Why do we have to allow fireworks on so many days to celebrate two holidays?” Iwamoto asked recently.

Dunnigan has said he also is considering changes to give cities more authority on where and when they may ban fireworks.

“There is some ambiguity in the current fireworks law,” he said.

He added that he hopes to use the committee bill “to clean up the ambiguity,” among other things, and have the interim committee debate it before the Legislature‘s general session convenes in January.

Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, also wants to clarify that issue in a bill file she has opened.

Her hometown of Cottonwood Heights this summer voted to ban aerial fireworks after a fire caused by them burned down a home. But she notes the city attorney warned the move could draw lawsuits because he felt that state law did not clearly give it such authority.

She has also said that a total fireworks ban should be discussed, although she figures such a proposal has little chance of passage because “many politicians want to protect the sales tax revenue that fireworks generate.” So she said she is looking mostly at giving cities clear power to ban fireworks.

Dunnigan has said that he opposes a total fireworks ban.

“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 recently.

On Tuesday, Utah State Forester Brian Cottam told legislators that “stupid human tricks,” including fireworks, helped double the cost of fighting wildfires this year to $18 million, compared to an average of $9 million.

He said 548 Utah wildfires so far this year were caused by humans, while another 304 were started naturally. In comparison, he said in Nevada this year, only 78 wildfires were caused by humans on state and private lands there.