As the West deals with a historic drought, officials in some cities are banning fireworks to help prevent more wildfires.
The pandemic shuttered most of the July 4 celebrations last year as people stayed home to stop the spread of Covid-19. Thanks mostly to vaccinations, restrictions have been loosened this year — with expectations that a traditional Independence Day with parades, picnics and fireworks would offer a glimpse of the pre-pandemic life.
But in the West, the danger posed by a historic drought and extreme temperatures will impact how people will be able to celebrate the Fourth.
Here’s the latest on fireworks in the West this holiday weekend.
Historic weather conditions
Drought conditions have expanded and worsened in the Western US, especially in the Pacific Northwest because of this past week’s record-breaking heatwave, according to the latest US Drought Monitor.
The region is dealing with an unrelenting drought, that has been ongoing for more than 20 years, and currently at its worst point in the decades-long drought.
Currently, drought coverage in the West has climbed to an all-time high of 93%, with nearly 60% in ‘Extreme’ or ‘Exceptional’ (the two highest categories). This is impacting around 60 million people across the Western US. There are five states completely in drought conditions; California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah and North Dakota.
“If there were ever a year we wanted to avoid fire ignitions in the Western US, this is it,” climate scientist Daniel Swain told CNN. “In general, we want to constrain those ignitions as much as we can in a year like this when vegetation in many parts of the West is at record dry levels, surpassing last year’s levels of dryness.”
Multiple studies have shown the West’s increasingly extreme and prolonged droughts are a consequence of the climate crisis.
The dry vegetation makes the region ripe for wildfires and officials are warning that fireworks just aren’t worth the risk.
“And that was true especially across the interior southwest of California,” Swain said. “It hadn’t been so true in the Pacific Northwest — but now, after literally in the hottest week in the region’s history by a wide margin, I expect vegetation conditions in the Pacific Northwest are now also going to be tinder-like after these extreme heatwaves.”
Fire risk is at an all-time high
Fire officials in the Bay Area warned residents that it would take just 30-60 seconds for a sparkler to ignite a blaze in dry grass that could no longer be controlled by a garden hose.
“Celebrating the Fourth of July is a long-standing tradition across our Nation, but we can do it without the illegal fireworks,” said Chief Brian Addington, Pittsburg Police Department in California, in a press release in June. “This year in particular, the risk of fire is at an all-time high.”
In 2018, fireworks caused an estimated 19,500 fires, five deaths, 46 injuries and $105 million in property damage, according to data collected by the National Fire Protection Association. More than one-quarter of fireworks fires from 2014-18 occurred on the Fourth of July, according to NFPA, and almost half of all fires reported on the Fourth of July are caused by fireworks.
“At one point last year, on the holiday, we literally ran out of fire resources to deal with the magnitude and expanse of the number of fires that were occurring in our district in the evening hours,” Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Chief Lewis Broschard III said during a media briefing June 10.
He added that this year there is a new ordinance in the Northern California county that will hold property and vessel owners responsible if fireworks are found on their property or determined to be used on their property.
“Fireworks are a part of that American fabric that brings us together,” James Fuller, Firework Safety Expert with TNT Fireworks, told CNN. “No one in our industry wants our products to expose families to harm or damages.”
TNT Fireworks is a large fireworks distributor in the US and operates in 49 states, according to the company’s website. The company urges consumers to use the products safely, responsibly and to check local laws before purchasing.
In many local jurisdictions in states such as California, Washington, and Nevada, the only fireworks that are allowed are labeled “Safe and Sane,” meaning they don’t create aerial effects or explode.
Canceled firework shows
“If we don’t take this proactive step now, I fear the consequences could be devastating,” Portland Fire & Rescue Chief Sara Boone told CNN affiliate KATU. “It is not easy to make a decision like this so close to our national holiday but as Fire Chief I feel I have a higher responsibility to sometimes make unpopular decisions during unprecedented times to protect life, property and the environment.”
In Utah, during a June briefing Governor Spencer Cox said that because of the historic nature of the drought, he would ban fireworks statewide but that he didn’t have the legal authority to do so, so he was urging local governments to enact their own restrictions.
In Salt Lake City, Mayor Erin Mendenhall along with Fire Department Chief Karl Lieb, announced June 22 that personal fireworks were banned although the city will still host a professional show.
“Our foothills, open spaces, and even our yards and park strips are dry and could be ignited by a single spark, threatening life, safety, and property,” Mendenhall said in a press release. “These conditions present a very real, immediate threat of fire. We have seen communities in neighboring western states be leveled by urban wildfires in recent years, and we cannot take unnecessary risks that may put us in the same position.”
About 32 miles away in Park City, city officials not only prohibited fireworks but they canceled the city’s planned fireworks show. Independence Day celebrations will continue in the city with a parade, music festival and flyover by the Hill Airforce Base, according to the city’s website.
“Reducing the risk of fire from disallowing fireworks is one way to protect the Park City community,” David Thacker, Park City’s fire code official, told CNN.
Low water reservoirs
Eagle Mountain, Utah, also canceled their firework show citing weather conditions and limited water resources. It’s not just about vegetation being dry, officials are worried about water being used to fight fires will deplete already low drinking water reservoirs.
“Weeks of scorching temperatures have only added more urgency to our call for deliberate and thoughtful water conservation, both indoors and out,” Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities Executive Director Laura Briefer said in a press release. “These canyon watersheds supply water to more than 360,000 people in the Salt Lake City service area. Catastrophic wildfire could be devastating not only to the land, but could have serious impacts on our water supply and safety.”
While people can still buy fireworks in certain areas, officials urge residents this year to leave the ignition up to the professionals.