Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday if he had the authority to issue a statewide ban on fireworks, he would.
But the governor said state attorneys told him that’s not in his power — even though he’s declared a state of emergency for the record-breaking drought that’s gripping Utah, putting much of the state at extreme risk for wildfires.
“I received a legal opinion last night from the (Utah) Attorney General’s Office and my general counsel that I do not have the authority to implement that, a statewide ban,” Cox said during his monthly PBS Utah news conference.
“I do think it’s a good idea,” the governor said about a statewide ban of fireworks as July approaches. Next month, Utahns will be legally able to light fireworks from July 2 to July 5 to celebrate the Fourth of July, and July 22 to July 25 to celebrate Pioneer Day on July 24.
However, Cox said state attorneys told him he as governor can “suspend statutes in case of emergency,” but “we can’t alter the statute.” Because the state already has laws regarding fireworks, Cox said that’s why he can’t ban them.
As for the Utah Legislature, Cox said there’s no appetite to ban fireworks statewide.
“I told the Legislature I think it’s a terrible idea not to have additional restrictions this year,” Cox said. “They haven’t shown any interest in doing anything more than that.”
So Cox said he’s “relying” on local governments to enact their own fireworks restrictions based on their areas’ risks. While the state fire marshal does have the authority to make fireworks illegal in unincorporated areas — which the governor said has already been enacted — it’s up to cities to manage incorporated areas.
“Look, people, just please, this is not the year,” Cox said. “Even if you think you’re being extremely safe, it’s so easy. One spark. Everything is so dry. It’s drier than you think.”
When plants like sage brush die and dry out like they already are this season, Cox said they “basically act like toilet paper.”
“One spark, and it just runs,” Cox said.
Cox, who on Tuesday issued a plea to Utahns to not light fireworks this season during a Facebook Live question-and-answer session, repeatedly reiterated that call.
“I just can’t emphasize this enough, guys,” Cox said. “It’s worse than you think it is right now.”
Cox also warned Utahns that even though fireworks are legal, if they start a fire, “you will be held liable for that fire. You will be responsible for paying to have that fire put out and any damages that occur.”
Pressed by a reporter on the legal opinion that he would be unable to ban fireworks amid the drought — even though the governor issued emergency orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic — Cox said, “that’s what I was told last night.”
Had state attorneys told him he could ban fireworks, Cox said he would.
“Yes. I would have implemented a fireworks ban,” Cox said. “What I think should happen is I think we should impose a ban statewide and then allow communities to designate safe zones where they want to have fireworks allowed.”
Cox said cities are allowed to restrict fireworks, but with some limitations under state statute.
“As cities are looking at this, their attorneys are going to have to look through this to make sure that they do it the right,” Cox said, adding that some cities have already put their own restrictions in place.
Last year, Utah had over 60 “human-caused fires that didn’t need to happen,” the governor said.
“One of those can turn into a million-dollar-a-day fire,” Cox said. “That’s how damaging these things can be.”