Utah lawmakers push to limit summer fireworks after rash of fires and complaints of polluted air and terrified pets

Talk of changes just the latest in a long string of discussion about Utah’s fireworks law.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) July 4 revelers plays with sparklers before the Sugarhouse fireworks, Saturday, July 4, 2015.

Lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that would nearly cut in half the number of days Utahns can ignite fireworks after cities reported calls from residents afraid of fires, annoyed with noise and upset over air pollution around the state’s two July holidays.

A bill moving through the Legislature would restrict fireworks to two days before and one day after both Independence Day on July 4 and Pioneer Day on July 24. That would be down from three days before the holidays, on the days of and three days after. These longer pyrotechnics periods have been in place since 2012.

Cities under the bill could restrict fireworks in more areas than under current law based on input from fire officials but couldn’t outright ban them. Fireworks retailers would have to list dates and times of legal ignition and limits and maps created by the county when selling to customers.

“All we’re trying to do is keep people from discharging in these hazardous areas so people will still be able to enjoy them,” Rep. Jim Dunnigan said. The Taylorsville Republican, a fireworks aficionado himself, wrote the existing law and is a co-author of the proposed revision.

The bill was written after a tinderbox-dry July that kept fire crews busy and put residents in urban and rural areas on high alert and also sparked confusion among cities in Salt Lake County over whether the current law allowed them to ban fireworks completely.

State fire officials blame fireworks for at least 16 percent of the roughly 1,100 fires this July, according to data shared by Dunnigan. Residents also complained of terrified pets, unwelcome 2 a.m. wake-up calls and unhealthy air that led the committee to unanimously move forward with the draft bill.

Lawmakers in 2011 voted to give Utahns a month (June 26 to July 26) to blow up certain aerial and other fireworks, but not bottle rockets, M-80s, reloadable mortars and Roman candles.

The following year, they set the dates that are still in place — three days before and three days after July 4 and July 24. But after a string of close calls and suburban fires blamed on fireworks, elected officials began taking the temperature of the public and fireworks companies on new restrictions for the 2018 session.

Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said “nine-to-one” the calls he received from residents this past July were complaints about fire, noise and air pollution.

Particulate matter that’s near hazardous to breathe spikes and often becomes trapped along the Wasatch Front around the summer holidays. Silvestrini also said calls reporting fires around those holidays soaked up fire officials’ ability to respond to other emergencies.

“That’s an unacceptable situation,” Silvestrini said. “We need to have some sanity here and I think this compromise moves us closer to that position.”

Cottonwood Heights and West Jordan both moved to ban aerial fireworks outright this summer ahead of Pioneer Day. Millcreek opted not to invoke such a ban, with city officials saying at the time the law was unclear.

The draft bill would expressly prohibit outright bans. Counties, cities and townships could only ban fireworks in hazardous areas that they clearly designate using roads, waterways and other geographical features. Fireworks can also be restricted within 200 feet of canyons, ravines, waterways, washes and other similar areas.

A Salt Lake Tribune poll this summer showed residents overwhelmingly supported the concept of their city banning fireworks outright during periods of extreme fire danger. A majority of Utahns surveyed also supported the sale of fireworks.

The draft bill also says anyone who causes a fire with illegal fireworks would be responsible for paying firefighting costs and for damages. If a minor sets off a fire with illegal fireworks, his or her parent or legal guardian would be on the hook to pay for the suppression and damages.