In a normal rain year, allowing people to set off fireworks in the middle of a Utah summer is, to put it charitably, asking for trouble.
If I were to put it in less charitable terms, I could quote former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. Nine years ago, as the state struggled against several human-caused fires in the middle of another dry summer, he said, “We can meet together and pass law after law after law. But you can’t pass a law that outlaws stupid.”
I thought about that last summer as three teenagers were arrested near Washington, Utah, after allegedly setting off fireworks in a restricted area, causing what became known as the Turkey Farm Road Fire. That one burned 11,993 acres of federal, state and private land.
No, we can’t outlaw stupid. Some people won’t obey the restrictions already in place. But we could outlaw incendiary devices for everyone, everywhere, except at professional fireworks shows. That would at least eliminate any confusion about where it’s OK and where it isn’t.
The question is, would people comply? At a time when something as logical and effective as wearing a simple mask to reduce the spread of a deadly virus made some people fighting mad, how would they react to being told to put their smoldering punks away and cancel their annual trips to Wyoming fireworks stands?
Actually, those are illegal here, anyway. Again, that hasn’t seemed to matter much. But how would they react if even local stands, with their milder explosives, were forced to close?
“I would worry about it backfiring,” Salt Lake Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton told me this week. “We have a different political climate right now.”
That’s different in a bad way. No surprise there. Westerners have a history of rugged independence, but that has been stretched dangerously close to anarchy in recent years.
Newton said she worries people would adopt the attitude that, “I’m going to show the government they can’t tell me what to do.” People who are reckless under current law would perhaps be even more reckless under a ban.
Newton made news this week by tweeting her preference to “only have city fireworks shows this July and all commit to banning personal fireworks this year.”
What followed were a slew of mostly positive comments, tinged with the thought that simply being nice and asking people politely to refrain from exploding things won’t work.
Newton can’t do much about that as a member of the County Council, other than to work for a ban in unincorporated areas. But Gov. Spencer Cox could initiate a statewide ban. The Legislature could, as well.
So could individual cities, and many do each year, at least in certain neighborhoods. That’s confusing, and confusion can be a convenient cover for feigned ignorance. A blanket ban would eliminate all excuses.
I would go so far as to urge all Western states to ban private displays this year.
I hardly need to mention it, but this is not a normal rain year. I’m used to urging a ban on fireworks in July, not June. But the current heat wave is putting an exclamation point on what experts say may be a record summer for drought and wildfires.
If you want a lesson in irony, just examine fireworks laws in all 50 states. The only state to outlaw them completely is Massachusetts, a place that gets 43 inches of rain a year, on average. It’s time for a bit of common sense.
Before you ask, yes, I have a copy of John Adams’ famous letter to his wife about his desire for Americans to celebrate Independence Day “with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”
We’ve already conceded to not have bonfires, and firing guns in the air comes with a host of potential problems, not the least concerning where the bullets land.
It’s worth noting that Adams also never said anything about hoping people act stupid.
Right now, allowing “illuminations” by anyone who isn’t part of a licensed, professional fireworks show seems stupid in a region beset with high temperatures and a record drought.
Let’s not tempt fate. This year, more than any other, we can celebrate freedom without taking unnecessary chances that fire could rob us of it.
Jay Evensen is a columnist for the Deseret News