People who opposed a statewide ban on fireworks during last year’s drought have seen their parched arguments erode even further beneath their feet lately.

And we’re still several weeks away from the patriotic holiday season.

Those arguments went up in smoke over the weekend when a fire, believed to be human-caused, erupted in Wasatch County, on a hillside near U.S. Highway 40, and rapidly spread. Original reports were that it had reached 85 acres. That was later adjusted to 25, but it was still a troubling blaze, the kind not often seen in May.

KSL quoted Mike Eriksson, area manager for the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, saying, “Wasatch County usually doesn’t see fires like this until July and August.”

If that isn’t an omen of things to come, I couldn’t think of a better one.

But we don’t need omens. We have facts. For example:

Utah may no longer be under “exceptional drought” conditions, as a majority of the state was a year ago at this time, but 55.7% of it was in the “extreme drought” category as of the end of last week, according to the monitoring website.

If you add an extreme drought year atop an exceptional drought year, what do you get? Unfortunately, that isn’t a riddle. What you get is more of this: 

Lake Powell is at 25% of its full level, leaving officials to choose between generating electricity or providing drinking water. Old shipwrecks are exposed as lake levels drop. In Nevada’s Lake Mead, officials discovered a body inside a barrel, likely the result of a murder that happened more than 40 years ago. They expect to find more.

Earlier this year, published research that showed the American West hasn’t seen such a prolonged drought in 1,200 years. 

Scientific American said the relative lack of rain in 2021 took the region from the worst prolonged drought since the late 1500s to the worst since the 800s. We don’t know what people who lived in this region were doing in the year 800, but they probably weren’t playing with fire.

Why am I writing this in May? Because no one is expecting torrents of rain between now and July, and because this is the time for local governments and the state to begin debating and enacting commonsense bans on personal fireworks. 

Politicians can do so with a reasonable assurance that much of the public would go along. In a recent poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, the largest segment of respondents, 38%, said fireworks should be restricted to government sponsored displays, and 25% said they should be banned altogether. 

However, 30%, a sizable figure, favored no more restrictions being imposed. That’s enough people to make a lot of noise.

A year ago, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton attracted attention by tweeting that she preferred having only city sponsored displays and urged people to voluntarily “commit to banning personal fireworks this year.”

Some people responded by suggesting the government do more than politely ask people to refrain.

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I spoke with Newton again this week, and she still feels as she did last year. For one thing, a complete ban would be too hard to enforce, she said. For another, the current political climate — having just emerged from mask mandates that ignited anti-government feelings among many — might lead some people “to light off more fireworks just to prove a point.”

The fact that this argument makes sense is a sad indictment of the way many weigh the needs of safety against political ideology.

The truth, however, is that Salt Lake County is virtually powerless in this debate, other than to impose bans in unincorporated areas. The bulk of the problem rests on local governments and the state Legislature, and they need to move now. 

Maybe people will be extra careful this year. Maybe we won’t see destructive fires on the days surrounding what, for many in Utah, are favorite holidays. We can hope. But in the midst of a two-decade drought, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in 1,200 years, are there any good arguments left for taking a chance?

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