SALT LAKE CITY — Utah firefighters are battling a number of fires going into Pioneer Day weekend, leading officials to urge the public to be cautious while celebrating the holiday with personal fireworks displays.
“There’s no doubt we have high fire danger and high fire potential statewide and unless we get really significant changes in the weather here soon, that’s going to continue,” said Kait Webb, spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “We are hoping that the public will have firefighters’ backs this weekend and help us reduce the number of wildfires that firefighters need to respond to.”
State Fire Marshal Coy Porter said the state is facing a historic fire season. High temperatures coupled with drought conditions declared in much of the state have led to volatile fire conditions this spring and summer.
The numbers reflect this, too — a total of 300 wildfires were reported by July 2019; so far this year there have been just under 700. According to Utah Fire Info, more than 5,000 homes have been threatened by wildfires in the state already this year.
According to Porter, the state has expended a “considerable amount of money” in suppression costs battling these fires, about 82% of which have been human caused.
With this in mind, Porter urged Utahns to celebrate Pioneer Day responsibly and to be aware of their surroundings when setting off fireworks displays.
“Obviously we want people to enjoy the holiday but be very cognizant of their surroundings,” Porter said.
Webb said 48 wildfires have been started by fireworks this year so far — a notable difference from 2018 and 2019 when there were 28 and 36 fires caused by fireworks, respectively, throughout the entire years.
She emphasized there is a misconception that blazes started by fireworks are always small and inconsequential. This is not the case.
“This year, we’ve had two very good examples of how detrimental fireworks can be,” Webb said, pointing to the Traverse and Turkey Farm Road fires as examples. “There were evacuations associated with that fire, there were also a number of firefighters, first responders and public put in danger because of that fireworks use.”
Webb said there were nine active fires burning in Utah earlier this week. The most recent is the Strawberry Fire located north of Mammoth Creek in Kane County. The blaze was estimated to cover 43 acres and be 15% contained as of Wednesday morning.
The Dennis Hill Fire, located near Park Valley in Box Elder County, was also sparked on Monday and quickly tore through 4,000 acres due to strong winds. The fire is 30% contained as of Wednesday morning and spans 2,608 acres, according to Utah Fire Info.
Responders have made progress on large fires like Washington City’s Turkey Farm Fire and the Big Summit Fire in Iron County, which Webb said is fortunate as resources will be available and ready to respond as needed for Pioneer Day.
She said the biggest thing the state is doing to prepare for the upcoming holiday weekend is spreading awareness and “really engaging the public in doing their part over the holiday weekend to be responsible, recreate responsibly with fire prevention and fire safety at the forefront of their minds.”
While there are general restrictions across the entire state such as no fireworks allowed on Forest Service lands or in national parks, fire restrictions vary from county to county and even city to city so Utahns are advised to check with their local fire authorities on what rules are present in their area.
The Utah Bureau of Land Management office in northern Utah has put fire restrictions on all lands it manages in Salt Lake, Utah, Tooele, Box Elder, Cache, Rich, Weber, Morgan, Davis, Summit and Wasatch. Counties in the eastern and southern sections of the state afre also impacted by federal rules.
The restrictions prohibit campfires except within agency provided fire grates at developed campgrounds, or within fully enclosed stoves, grills or in stoves using pressurized liquid or gas. The agency also is cautioning the public to only discharge firearms in approved areas and to never shoot exploding ordinances or use steel-core or tipped ammunition. Additionally, off-road vehicles must have spark arrestors and drivers should never park the vehicle anywhere a hot tailpipe can ignite dry grass.
Salt Lake City bans the discharge of fireworks in City Creek Canyon, all city parks, all areas west of Redwood Road, everywhere north of South Temple, and on the University of Utah campus. Fireworks are also banned along Jordan River Parkway.
Park City officials Wednesday morning enacted a ban on all fireworks as well as open fires, or other sources that could start a fire due to the dry conditions.
Matthew McFarland, spokesman for Unified Fire Authority, said Utahns should take the time to inform themselves about the restricted areas, which include all bench areas in Salt Lake County.
“There’s a huge part of Salt Lake County where fireworks are not permitted any day of the year at any point in time and that’s because there are hazards in the area.” he said. “It’s imperative that people are aware of these things.”
Detailed restrictions for the 2020 season can be found on an interactive map on Unified Fire Authority’s website.
McFarland said Unified Fire Authority is preparing for conditions this Pioneer Day that are even more volatile than they were leading into the July Fourth holiday due to a hot and dry July. He said the department will have extra staff on hand.
Still, he encouraged Utahns to consider forgoing fireworks all together this year.
“Our No. 1 go-to messaging is always please enjoy one of the professional shows — there’s safety measures in place, they are licensed, they are manned and have a safety strategy,“ McFarland said. “It’s the safest and most hassle-free way to enjoy fireworks, Unfortunately this year there are no professional fireworks shows that I’m aware of.”
He recalled seeing more than double the amount of personal fireworks on the Fourth of July than he has at any other point in time — a trend he anticipates continuing this weekend.
“If you must use fireworks make sure you are located somewhere it’s allowed and then take the proper safety measures,” McFarland said, pointing to keeping them away from kids, disposing of them properly and having a bucket of water on hand as examples.