In lieu of widespread government action on fireworks amid the worst drought the state has seen in decades, a coalition of city mayors, council members and fire crews joined Gov. Spencer Cox in begging Utahns to forgo personal pyrotechnic displays this summer.
Wednesday’s news conference comes after weeks of finger pointing among elected officials about who has responsibility to protect the state from burning this holiday season — and that duty now seems to have settled, in many areas, at the feet of individuals.
“Many have said I should just ban fireworks statewide,” Cox noted, standing in front of several fire trucks parked in front of the state Capitol. “As governor, my hands are tied on that one. As I’ve said before, if I could issue a ban on personal fireworks I would — but state law does not allow me to do that. So I’m asking you — I’m imploring you, each of you — to do the right thing. And the right thing this year is to put your fireworks away.”
Cox has said previously that he would like legislators to take up the mantle of fireworks prohibitions. But legislative leaders have been uninterested in that approach, noting that city officials already have the power to create guardrails around the use of fireworks.
It’s true that cities can prohibit the use of fireworks in certain high-threat areas, but there are differing legal opinions about whether they can enact comprehensive bans.
Some municipalities, like Salt Lake City, Holladay and Ogden, have issued citywide prohibitions anyway, an approach Cox said he believes they have legal standing to take. Other cities have expressed interest in issuing a widespread ban but haven’t because they don’t believe they have the authority to do so, an opinion supported by the Legislature’s own attorneys.
Millcreek officials, for example, said in a city newsletter last week that they would like to restrict fireworks “because of the drought, the heat and the low humidity in our landscaping, buildings and other fuels this year.”
”But state law does not allow a municipal government to make this determination without a recommendation of its Fire Marshal based upon specific criteria specified in the statute,” the newsletter continued.
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.
In areas without restrictions, personal legal fireworks can be lit from July 2 to 5 and from July 22 to 25. The 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.
Officials encouraged Utahns Wednesday to take personal responsibility and not to light fireworks even in areas where they’re technically allowed. Instead, they said Utahns should attend their local professional shows, which are lower risk and where fire officials will be on site to manage any problems.
“Consider maybe planning for fireworks on New Year’s instead of Fourth of July,” said Unified Fire Chief Dan Peterson. “We want you to enjoy the 4th. We want you to enjoy the 24th. We just don’t want the risk that our current weather and fire conditions are presenting.”
With 93% of the state in extreme drought, Peterson warned that wildland areas are “bone dry and incredibly susceptible to fire,” and that even urban areas are drier than in years past, increasing the likelihood that a devastating fire could spark.
If that happens, there could be fewer resources available to manage a fire, Peterson said, noting that half of the nation’s wildfire agencies are already committed to fighting other conflagrations.
Cox recognized that some people will ignore the request from him and city leaders to forgo fireworks this year. But he told reporters that he’s “optimistic” most people will do the right thing on their own.
“I know there are people that really care about fireworks, it’s just really important to them, and I’m sure there will be lots of people that light off fireworks this year,” he said. “But I think more and more people will not. That’s the good news. I hear from many people who have said, hey, we’re changing our plans this year. That’s great news.”
Every firework that isn’t lit, he said, “is a potential fire that doesn’t happen. So we’ll take the wins we can get there.”
People who do choose to set off fireworks should have fireworks and water extinguishers nearby so they’re prepared for the worst, Cox said.
While it will come too late for this summer’s celebrations, the state Legislature has expressed its intent to explore the state’s convoluted fireworks code in next year’s legislative session.
It’s unclear what might come from those conversations, but the governor has expressed support for simplifying the code and requiring fireworks bans automatically in areas that are under a certain drought designation.
And though there’s widespread agreement among many local officials that fireworks should not be allowed, Cox said he doesn’t see the lack of widespread action to ban them as a failure of the legislative process.
“The whole nature of the legislative process is that we learn every year and every year we make decisions,” he said. “I mean, the reason we haven’t had this discussion is because we haven’t had a situation like this, this deep of a drought situation.”
The dangerous drought conditions have “certainly gotten the attention of legislators,” he continued. “I’ve heard that over and over again that they want to take another look at this. And so when we learn and we have different circumstances, we try to do better.”