‘Be smart’: Ditch personal fireworks this year, Salt Lake County leaders beg
Utah law ‘tying the hands’ of cities wanting all-out ban on fireworks amid drought, lawmaker says. She wants to change that
The sun beating down on them, Republican and Democratic Salt Lake County leaders stood together in a dry, dusty field on Monday and urged Utahns to forgo personal fireworks this year amid Utah’s exceptional drought.
While a Democratic lawmaker from Draper expressed frustrations that state law shackles cities’ abilities to ban fireworks outright, leading to a confusing patchwork of restricted areas, both Republicans and Democrats urged Utahns to be responsible on their own.
“I just want to emphasize this great risk and ask people to really do the right thing,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said.
She pleaded with Salt Lake County residents to only attend professional fireworks shows and avoid the use of personal fireworks.
“As we enter into this July holiday season, we have an exceptional risk this year,” Wilson said. “Drought plus heat equals extreme fire danger. This is a historic drought, we all know that.”
Wilson, a Democrat, stood elbow to elbow with two Republican Salt Lake County councilwomen — Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and Councilwoman Dea Theadore — who also joined that call for “personal responsibility.”
They issued the call while standing on the edge of Dimple Dell Regional Park, a 630-acre wild area where Sandy neighborhoods share fence lines with dry brush. Almost every summer, the popular trail network for hikers, bikers and horseback riders sees brush fires that have threatened homes.
“Just because you’re in an area that allows fireworks or doesn’t have a ban doesn’t mean you should use them,” Newton said.
Pointing to Gov. Spencer Cox’s call to Utahns to join in a collective prayer for rain, regardless of religious affiliation, Newton said she and her family “decided that we needed to do more than just pray.”
On top of deciding to “turn off our water when we brush our teeth,” shortening their showers, and only watering their lawn twice a week, Newton said her family decided to enact their own ban on fireworks within their family.
“Instead of lighting off fireworks in our circle with our neighbors like we usually do, we’re going to have a barbecue, we’re going to play some games, and we’re going to have a great time celebrating our Independence and Pioneer days in July,” Newton said.
“But we’re going to do it without fireworks.”
Newton issued a “plea” to all Salt Lake County residents: “Be smart.”
“We believe in liberty and freedom. But we also believe in personal responsibility,” she said. “And it’s time for all of us to step up this year and to find other ways to celebrate these holidays in July other than using fireworks.”
Heading into July, when fireworks are allowed in Utah for certain days before and after the Fourth of July and Pioneer Day on July 24, fireworks vendors say they don’t have the supply they want heading into the holidays, with shipments being held up overseas due to the pandemic.
Frustrations over state law
Under Utah law, local leaders aren’t able to enact sweeping citywide bans on use of fireworks or the sale of fireworks, but cities can enact bans in certain risky areas (generally wildland interface areas) based off recommendations from fire marshals.
The result is a confusing patchwork of areas where fireworks are or aren’t allowed — leaving it up to Utahns to check their local restrictions in order to know whether they’re legally able to set off personal fireworks.
Salt Lake County residents can use an interactive map on the county’s website, slcoem.org, to see where fireworks are and aren’t prohibited this year. The website is updated when local leaders enact new restrictions, so just because the map might show fireworks are allowed in an area one day, another day the area could be restricted, noted Clint Mecham, the county’s emergency management director.
Many cities throughout the state like Salt Lake City, Millcreek, Sandy, Cottonwood Heights, American Fork and Bluffdale have already enacted or are working to enact their own patchwork bans. A list of each city’s restrictions is available on the Utah Department of Public Safety’s website.
Like how Gov. Spencer Cox said he would enact a statewide ban on fireworks this year if he could, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said he’d also ban fireworks citywide if he could.
“I absolutely (wish I could do more),” Silvestrini told the Deseret News on Monday. “I really implore the Legislature next session to give local government authorities more flexibility to restrict fireworks when the fire danger in general to the whole city is extreme.”
Silvestrini, however, said the situation is “fluid.” If his fire marshal changed his recommendation to a citywide ban, Silvestrini said he would ask the Millcreek City Council to consider it. Even though that may be questionable legal territory, Silvestrini said it’s worth pursuing amid this year’s wildfire danger.
“I hate to create more confusion by changing it again, but I do believe if I felt like I had the authority to enact a citywide ban out of the chute on this thing, I would,” he said.
Silvestrini said he’s waiting to hear if the fire marshal makes a new recommendation.
But even if state law wasn’t so murky on what local leaders are or aren’t able to restrict, Silvestrini said local leaders will likely still run into trouble if their residents aren’t on board.
“City leaders can ban left or right,” he said. “But fundamentally we need the cooperation of our residents to recognize the severity of the situation and to make a personal choice and take personal responsibility for their behavior and not set off personal fireworks this year.”
Silvestrini said city officials will be enforcing the law, “but there’s no way we would have enough resources to enforce it across our city if residents don’t cooperate.”
“Government has a limited role here. The ban sends a message, and it may discourage some people who are more law-abiding than others,” Silvestrini said. “But fundamentally people have to make this decision for themselves and their neighbors.”
Calls to allow more local control
Asked if she would enact a countywide ban on fireworks if she had the power, Wilson said she only deals “with what options are put before me, so I haven’t gone through the review process to determine whether or not we would impose a ban if I have that unilateral authority, which I don’t have.”
“I do know,” she added, “that this is a very very intense year. I appreciate the governor’s message, I appreciate our local officials stepping up and communicating the concern this year. I think we’re going to listen.”
Wilson noted she does “feel some relief” that fireworks bans are already in place across the foothills.
However, Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, who joined Monday’s news conference at Dimple Dell, said she’s already filed legislation seeking to give local leaders more flexibility to ban fireworks — and she wants the Utah Legislature to convene in a special session to make that change as soon as possible.
“I really urge people to take personal responsibility this year, to find other ways to celebrate the holidays. But we need to go a step further,” Harrison said. “Our current one-size-fits-all statute regarding fireworks is tying the hands of local communities.”
Cox last week said the Utah Legislature, which is in control of a Republican supermajority, hasn’t “shown any interest” in allowing more fire restrictions this year, despite the unprecedented drought.
Harrison also said she wants to explore the possibility of banning the sale of fireworks, not just the lighting of fireworks.
“There’s no way for cities or communities to do anything about the sale of fireworks, which I think causes a lot of confusion for residents,” she said. “I think there should be a discussion, if not now, about future abilities of communities to address that.”
Harrison urged Utahns to call their state leaders — including legislative leadership and the governor — to urge action now on increasing fireworks restrictions.
“We know we’re getting hotter, and we know our fire and wildfire seasons are getting longer,” she said. “We need additional statute that unshackles our local communities to be able to address the risks in their communities.”
If Utahns have questions about whether fireworks are or aren’t restricted in their areas, they’re encouraged to call their cities for more information. Utahns can also report non-emergency illegal use of fireworks in Salt Lake County by calling 801-840-4000. For violations of bans in Salt Lake City and Sandy, call 801-799-3000.