As the state faces a severe drought and fire officials predict this summer could be one of the worst on record, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says he’d like to issue a statewide ban on fireworks ahead of the Fourth of July.
The problem is, he can’t.
Cox told reporters during his monthly news conference with PBS Utah on Thursday that he received a legal opinion this week stating that his hands were tied to use his emergency powers to enact any stricter ban than he’s already done. The governor announced earlier this month that he was prohibiting fireworks on state land and unincorporated private land because of the wildfire risk they pose.
“What I was told is that while we can suspend statutes in a case of emergency, we can’t alter the statute,” he said. “That doesn’t allow me the authority to ban fireworks.”
Cox said the Legislature could enact a fireworks ban, if it wanted to — but there doesn’t seem to be the political will to take that course of action on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve told the Legislature I think it’s a terrible idea not to have additional restrictions this year,” he said. “They haven’t shown any interest in doing more around that.”
So, in the wake of inaction at the state level, Cox encouraged local municipalities to enact restrictions. He acknowledged their hands are tied, too, to some degree thanks to the state’s “messy” fireworks laws but said it’s the next best option.
Some communities have already implemented fire restrictions, with details for each city outlined in full on the Utah Department of Public Safety’s website.
Cox also called on all Utahns to exercise their own individual caution, noting that a single spark from a firework can cause a blaze that costs millions of dollars to fight — and the person who starts one will be responsible for paying to put it out and for any damages it causes.
“This is not the year,” he said of fireworks. “Even if you think you’re being extremely safe, it’s so easy. One spark. Everything is so dry. It’s drier than you think.”
In areas without firework bans, Utahns can legally start lighting them from July 2 to July 5, as part of Fourth of July celebrations, and from July 22 to July 25 to celebrate Pioneer Day.
Moving forward, Cox said he would like to see changes to the state’s firework policy so that interventions can happen. Legislators argue every year about whether and how to ban fireworks, he noted.
On Wednesday, he called for changes to state law that would make those conversations easier to navigate by enacting fireworks bans automatically at a certain drought designation.
“If your community is in exceptional drought, that to me is a very easy categorization,” he said. “It’s just common sense.”
Cox noted during the news conference that Utah is facing drought conditions that are “worse than most of us have ever seen in our lifetime.” Last year was the driest on record and one of the hottest and that, combined with limited snowpack, has led to “record dry soils.”
While the length of the drought is out of anyone’s control, he urged Utah residents as well as business owners to conserve by letting their lawns go yellow and reserving their water for trees, shrubs and flowerbeds. He said they should also consider replacing grass in their parking strips with xeriscaping.
The state is leading by example, he said, noting that he’s already issued executive orders limiting state facilities to watering twice a week and turning off sprinklers on windy days.
Some people were critical of that request, he acknowledged Thursday, saying, “why are you asking us to pray for rain when we should be conserving more?”
“And they’re right, we should be conserving more,” too, he noted.
Cox said there is a need for more conservation in the face of a changing climate that scientists agree has increased the length and intensity of the wildfire season and led to record-setting temperatures like the ones the state has seen this week.
Utah leaders have implemented several policy changes over the past few years to address drought, climate change and air quality, he said — but he acknowledged there’s still more to be done, particularly around drought.
“It means changing the way that that we utilize water,” he said. “It means incentivizing better behaviors, less grass, more xeriscaping, those types of things, additional storage, especially underground storage as well, as we continue to enhance the the aquifers underground where water doesn’t evaporate.”
Ahead of the Fourth of July, when risk for setting off wildfires from fireworks is high, drought conditions have already made the state more vulnerable to big blazes. And Jamie Barnes, interim director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, warned lawmakers this week that Utah may be heading into “the most expensive fire season on record.”
As of Tuesday, she said there had been 370 fires in Utah, 317 of which were human caused. Nearly 90% of those were extinguished before they grew to 10 acres or larger, but suppression has already cost somewhere between $12 and $22 million in state and federal dollars. Agreements for sharing costs have yet to be completed, she said.
In 2020, when Utah set a record for human-caused blazes, Cox said there were more than 60 fires caused by fireworks.
“That didn’t need to happen,” he said, in urging caution as the summer holidays approach. “One of those can turn into a million dollar a day fire. That’s how damaging these things can be.”