(ABC4) – The Fourth of July is one of America’s most celebrated holidays, complete with parades, barbecues, and fireworks lighting up the night sky. For Utahns, the 24th of July, commemorating the entrance of the pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, is also a festive occasion with similar gestures of celebration.
Local officials and leaders, however, are hoping those same fireworks don’t end up lighting up Utah’s extremely dry landscape.
“It’s a pretty serious situation out there,” Sheri Stevens, who manages the fireworks program for the state fire marshal tells ABC4. “It’s extremely dry, we need some rain. We’re in a huge drought and it’s pretty dangerous.”
For several weeks now, the top leadership in Utah has cautioned the state is likely entering into one of the driest and most dangerous fire seasons in history. Governor Spencer J. Cox has repeatedly brought up his concerns in press conferences with the media and in remarks on his social media.
On May 26, Cox introduced a statewide awareness program called “Fire Sense,” calling for Utahns to exercise responsible choices to avoid preventable wildfires. According to statistics released before the “Fire Sense” introduction, all but eight of the 227 reported wildfires at the time had been human-caused.
“Where we’re starting from and where we’re going is not good,” Cox stated at the beginning of the press conference.
Last year, incidents from fireworks and incendiary devices were a huge problem during conditions that were also dry, but not nearly as severe as 2021. According to a report provided to ABC4 from Stevens, 217 fires were caused by fireworks in 2020. Those numbers were given as part of a voluntary reporting program, meaning the actual number could be even greater, says Stevens.
Part of Stevens’ duties is to update the fire restrictions on the Utah Department of Public Safety’s website. She explains that as of now, whether or not fireworks are approved for firing are on a city-by-city basis. It would be up to the state legislature to institute a statewide ban, which, as of the time of this article’s publication, has not occurred. Looking at the list of city restrictions on fireworks, many areas have not updated their fireworks policies for 2021. A couple of cities haven’t given new information to Stevens in several years. She tells ABC4 she expects a slew of updates to come to her as June winds down and the Fourth of July approaches.
Some local government leaders have voiced their feelings on fireworks already. Salt Lake County Council member and former state governor candidate Aimee Winder Newton tweeted her thoughts on shooting personal fireworks over the weekend, the same weekend Cox asked all Utahns of faith to pray for rain.
Speaking to ABC4, Newton elaborated on her remarks by saying her family will still be enjoying some fireworks this summer, but only those done by trained professionals in areas where it is safe to do so.
“As I’ve looked at the drought this year and all of our dry grasses, I’m worried about fireworks in July,” she explains. “My family and I have made a personal ban that we are not going to light fireworks, that we are going to enjoy the city’s fireworks shows. We feel strongly that we all need to step up and do things a little bit differently this year.”
Newton is aware many Utah families make a bit of supplemental or even primary income on firework stands in the summer, and that is definitely something considered by leadership when discussing fireworks restrictions. However, this year, the conditions are severe enough she feels a break from fireworks is almost entirely necessary.
“At the end of the day, public safety has got to be our No. 1 priority,” Newton states. “If we are putting ourselves at risk by having fireworks and lots of potential fires with this dry brush, it’s just not a good, responsible thing.”
As for whether or not she feels a statewide ban would be an appropriate step, Newton suggests that due to a strained political climate, some Utahns who were not originally planning on buying and lighting fireworks would do so, just to make a point.
“I’m encouraging everybody that is willing to take personal responsibility to help us by not lighting fireworks this year,” she says. “Let’s celebrate the Fourth and 24th in other ways and let’s not put ourselves at risk for fire danger.”