Fireworks tug of war heats up as legislative attorneys say cities can’t impose blanket bans

Salt Lake City says its prohibition stands, and even some state lawmakers want to leave the decision up to locals.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign advertising fireworks in American Fork on Wednesday, June 23, 2021.

As Utah’s ongoing drought increases the risk that Independence Day fireworks might ignite a blaze on the parched landscape, state lawmakers have largely pointed to local officials as the ones responsible for restricting the explosives.

Trouble is, the Legislature’s own attorneys say state leaders haven’t given cities and towns free rein to do so.

“That authority to regulate fireworks is limited,” Peter Asplund, a legislative attorney, wrote in a legal analysis he prepared this week for state lawmakers.

And while local leaders can ban fireworks in certain, high-threat areas, he added, “attempting to prohibit them throughout an entire municipality would seem to violate both the letter and intent of the statutory limitations.”

Salt Lake City declared just such a blanket ban earlier this week with an order that extends to the fireworks most commonly sold at neighborhood stands, including smoke bombs and sparklers.

Still, the explanation by legislative legal counsel seems to support the position taken by attorneys, mayors and council members in many cities and counties who have hesitated to impose a wide-reaching ban because they fear it runs counter to state law.

“Their own attorneys at the Legislature are telling us at the city level that we cannot enact an all-out ban,” Sandy City Council member Zach Robinson said Thursday, “even though our residents are asking us to do something along those lines, given this year’s insane conditions.”

That hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from punting to municipalities anyway.

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

And Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said in an interview Thursday that legislative leaders are “very comfortable that local municipalities have the flexibility” they need to handle firework risks in their communities.

In areas without restrictions, personal legal fireworks can be lit from July 2 to 5 and from July 22 to 25. The highly dangerous explosives, which can cause home fires and wildfires, can be set off between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., although that window is extended to midnight on July 4 and July 24.

Utah law states that municipalities can prohibit fireworks on landscapes covered in brush, trees or dry grass; close to waterways, trails or ravines; along the border between the wilderness and neighborhoods and in several other specific places. However, they still have to draw the boundaries for no-fireworks zones “as close as is practical to the defined hazardous area” and must release their maps restricting fireworks in historically hazardous areas by May 1 of each year.

Some municipalities have enacted broader bans anyway. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced the capital’s ban — by order of its fire marshal — earlier this week.

“Salt Lake City is confident in its legal analysis of the state’s statute,” the mayor’s office said Thursday in a statement, “and the fire marshal’s ability, which was delegated to him by the City Council, to protect the city during these extraordinarily dangerous drought conditions.”

Mendenhall previously noted other cities, including Holladay and Cottonwood Heights, have adopted all-out fireworks bans as well.

‘A moral obligation’

But Cottonwood Heights Mayor Mike Peterson said that’s not technically the case.

“We do not have a ban for the total city,” Peterson said. “We have a ban for everything east of 1300 East.”

That 1300 East demarcation came at the recommendation of the Unified Fire Authority for the entire Salt Lake Valley. Only a tiny sliver in the northwest corner of Cottonwood Heights is located west of 1300 East, however, meaning the overwhelming majority of the city falls under the edict.

“We felt we had a moral obligation,” Peterson said, especially after a man’s aerial fireworks caught a field on fire and burned a home July 4, 2017.

“The next year, we went to the Legislature to try and give cities complete authority to ban at anytime,” Peterson said. “They outlined areas we could ban under extraordinary situations.”

Holladay lies east of the 1300 East line recommended by Unified Fire, and officials have placed the entire city under a fireworks ban this year. Mayor Rob Dahle said he believes the city’s ordinance meets state law but acknowledged that the way the statute is written could potentially lead to lawsuits.

“It’s putting municipalities in a bad spot,” Dahle said. “The state has basically come in and said … statute doesn’t allow blanket restrictions statewide. But there’s also been encouragement for municipalities to act.”

‘It’s a terrible idea’

(Justin Reeves | via AP) The Traverse Fire burns near homes in Lehi, Utah, Sunday, June 28, 2020. Officials say fireworks caused the wildfire.

Existing law has been a source of frustration to Gov. Spencer Cox, who has said he’d like to issue a statewide ban on fireworks but doesn’t currently have the legal authority to do it. He has encouraged state legislators to step in and do something, but there doesn’t seem to be the political will for this on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve told the Legislature I think it’s a terrible idea not to have additional restrictions this year,” he told reporters earlier this month. “They haven’t shown any interest in doing more around that.”

There does, however, seem to be some momentum around revisiting the issue in the next general session, according to Rep. Jim Dunnigan, who has been one of the biggest hands shaping the state’s fireworks policies.

The Taylorsville Republican sponsored 2013 legislation that blocked cities and towns from restricting fireworks in many neighborhoods, saying at the time that local officials “really should not just do a blanket ban unless they truly believe that an entire city is a hazardous area.”

He still believes some communities can make a case for that, but it would be “very difficult to do.”

The law also stipulates that city councils or other local legislative bodies are in charge of imposing fireworks restrictions — another reason he suspects the ban issued by Salt Lake City’s fire marshal does not align with state statute.

Vickers said he does not expect the state will “get into any kind of a fight” with the city over its current prohibitions.

“Under the circumstances ... if the city needs to do a total ban,” he said, “I don’t think we’re going to object.”

‘Patchwork approach’

On the other hand, representatives of TNT Fireworks, an Alabama-based company with a distributor in Sandy, are pushing back against the Salt Lake City restrictions as a “patchwork approach” that will leave many Utahns unsure of the rules they should follow on and around Independence Day and the state Pioneer Day holiday.

Instead, company officials have tried to pitch Cox on the idea of teaming up with them on a safety campaign that would include newspaper ads and radio and television public service announcements.

“We don’t want to put consumers in a position where they’re confused, they don’t know the rules, or they’re unknowingly violating a law they didn’t even know was there,” James Fuller, a TNT Fireworks safety expert, said of Salt Lake City’s restrictions.

A ban issued this close to the holiday season, Fuller contends, also harms church groups, sports teams and nonprofits that have already stocked up on fireworks and planned to sell them as part of their fundraising efforts.

“We have a lot of partners that rely on these fundraising opportunities every year to do what they do,” he said. “We feel a responsibility deeply to help them keep their businesses alive and their nonprofit budgets.”

But Sen. Jani Iwamoto, who also has worked on fireworks bills, said she’s not going to fault Salt Lake City for its ban, adding that local leaders are just trying to keep their communities safe during dangerously dry conditions. And she and other Senate Democrats have expressed willingness to revisit the state’s fireworks law, given the “overwhelming trend line of human-caused fires.”

“It’s going to get worse,” Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said. “What’s hard about state law, too, is that you have to look at the whole state, and there are places where people do want their fireworks in their communities, and so it’s hard to legislate. And that’s why I think it’s so important to have that local control.”

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.

Correction June 25, 11:45 a.m. • A previous version didn’t clarify that the fireworks restriction maps released by May 1 of each year pertain to historically hazardous areas.