Dave Schoeneck was visiting family in New York last Fourth of July when he received an unexpected call from a neighbor in the middle of the night. He was told his Cottonwood Heights home was about to go up in flames.
The fire, which engulfed the trees, scrub oak and shrubbery in a privately owned field just east of Schoeneck’s house, was started after a man lit an aerial firework in a celebration of Independence Day.
That moment of fun for the reveler came at a high cost to Schoeneck, who lost two 44-foot pine trees, patio furniture and a significant portion of his home’s exterior. He also had to live in a hotel for almost two months while the house’s windows and carpet were replaced.
Schoeneck, though, is just grateful he didn’t lose his wife and son, both of whom were inside when the fire started.
Almost a year later, Schoeneck is fighting to reform firework regulations in the state. He and three friends — dressed in black and carrying a full-size prop coffin — demonstrated Monday at the state Capitol.
Schoeneck said he believes the life insurance company that owns the 55-acre lot where the fire started needs to be held accountable. The Security National property is “55 acres that’s a tinderbox of a field,” he said, with dead grass and highly flammable brush.
“If I had tall grass that was dead and scrub oak in my front lawn and I set my house on fire, I’d be liable,” Schoeneck said.
There have been more than six fires in the field since Schoeneck and his family moved in next door, he said.
Scott Quist, president of Security National Financial Corporation, told The Salt Lake Tribune that the land, which has been deemed a “Wildlife Interface Area” by Cottonwood Heights, receives “periodic inspections” by government officials. “We have always been in compliance with those rules,” Quist said.
In a statement Monday, the company said the damage to Schoeneck’s house was due to “two large pine trees” on his property “that had overgrown onto the [company’s] land,” and thus not Security Financial’s responsibility.
Quist acknowledged the necessity of keeping vegetation “in check to try to minimize the risk of fire,” but he added, “it’s a balancing act.”
He called Schoeneck’s activism into question, alleging that he was simply trying to collect damages from the company. “So what he’s really trying to do with these protests is to get us to pay him for emotional distress,” Quist told The Tribune.
In February, the Utah Legislature passed HB38, a law that took effect May 8 that shortened the number of days Utahns can legally shoot fireworks from 14 to eight between July 2-5 and July 22-25. It also gives cities the authority to ban fireworks in areas that are deemed fire hazards.
While Schoeneck is grateful there are politicians acknowledging the issue, he said limiting the number of days fireworks are legal “is like putting a Band-Aid on an artery that’s already gushing blood.”
Throughout the 2016 summer, Utah lost more than 99,000 acres of land to wildfires, the state’s worst wildfire season since 2012. The next year was hardly any better: A June 2017 blaze in Brian Head alone burned at least 40,148 acres, which at the time was the largest active wildfire in the U.S.
Schoeneck said Cottonwood Heights officials, including from the city’s police and fire departments, have “had a number of meetings” and been supportive of banning aerial fireworks in the state. After last year’s fire that burned his house, the city banned fireworks altogether until New Year’s Eve. However, the state then told the city it did not have the authority to do that.
Schoeneck points to others in the Western region, like California and Colorado, that have taken more serious regulatory actions, essentially banning aerial fireworks. California allows such displays by licensed professionals.
“Right now, I’m trying to get public awareness,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to die. … I’m talking about lives.”