Salt Lake City declares fireworks ban, but some wonder if it can do so under Utah law

State lawmakers’ reluctance to empower city councils and mayors to adopt stiffer restrictions sparks debate.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Family members stage their own holiday fireworks show in front of their home along 500 East near Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday, July 4, 2020. This year, such a display would not be allowed under the mayor's citywide ban.

There will be no sparklers, Roman candles or rockets to ring in Independence Day or celebrate Pioneer Day in Utah’s capital this year.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced a citywide ban on personal fireworks Tuesday afternoon.

“Our foothills, our open spaces, and even our yards and park strips are dry and could be ignited by a single spark,” the mayor said in a statement. “These conditions present a very real, immediate threat of fire.”

The prohibition is by order of the city’s fire marshal.

“This is a hazard that we have some control over,” Fire Chief Karl Lieb said in a statement. “It is a hazard that is completely within our ability to mitigate, which is why we feel a ban on all fireworks and novelties is appropriate and necessary.”

City-hosted firework displays, however, will continue as planned next month, including at Jordan Park on July Fourth and at Liberty Park on July 24.

The ban does pertain to the fireworks most commonly sold at neighborhood stands, including smoke bombs and sparklers.

Fireworks are highly dangerous explosives that can burn houses, spark wildfires and cause a spike in air pollution each July. But it’s not entirely clear whether state law allows cities to outright ban them. Public safety code blocks cities, counties and towns from prohibiting explosives around the July Fourth and July 24 holidays, except “in certain areas with hazardous environmental conditions.”

That wording has ignited debate among city leaders, legislators and the governor in recent days.

Republican Gov. Spencer Cox said last week that he would like to enact a statewide fireworks ban, but it’s up to the Legislature to change the code.

“I’ve told the Legislature I think it’s a terrible idea not to have additional restrictions this year,” the governor previously said at a news conference. “They haven’t shown any interest in doing more around that.”

Some state lawmakers have punted to local elected leaders, saying it’s their job to snuff out the problem.

“We have taken steps to empower local officials rather than impose a statewide fireworks ban,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a statement Monday. “I do not believe it is necessary for the [L]egislature to hold a special session at this time.”

“If you live in Utah and want fireworks banned in your community, please contact your mayor and city councils,” tweeted Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. “This is a local decision.”

That caused several local elected officials to fire back.

“This is not accurate,” Sandy City Council member Zach Robinson tweeted in response to Weiler. “The Legislature has tied our hands at a local level to do an all-out ban.”

Murray City Council member Kat Martinez agreed that municipalities had limited authority over explosives in areas other than open space.

“Murray has restricted them on the Jordan parkway and in city parks where we are allowed to per state code,” Martinez tweeted, “but according to our city attorney we cannot do a citywide ban even though I would love to do that.”

Midvale City Council member Bryant Brown bluntly stated that lawmakers are misleading the public.

“As a City Council member, I can’t just ban fireworks,” Brown tweeted. “You’ve been lied to by your politicians. And rural Utah likely needs the ban more than the big cities.”

Asked at a news conference whether Mendenhall was prepared for a legal challenge to her citywide fireworks ban, the mayor said other cities have adopted similar orders, such as Park City, Holladay and Cottonwood Heights. The Ogden City Council will consider prohibiting open flames and fireworks at a special meeting scheduled for June 24.

“We are very confident in our legal standing,” she said.

Mendenhall added that the entire city is experiencing the hazardous environmental conditions required in state law.

“Essentially, the city is combustible,” the mayor said.

Salt Lake County has created an interactive map showing which cities have fireworks restrictions and where, but county officials have urged residents not to light them up regardless, due to extremely dry conditions.

Salt Lake City and Sandy residents can report illegal use of fireworks and other nonemergency fireworks issues by calling 801-799-3000. Residents in other parts of the county can call 801-840-4000.

Those caught violating fireworks orders could face a class B misdemeanor and fines up to $1,000.

— Tribune reporter Sara Tabin contributed to this story.