Gov. Spencer Cox and dozens of city leaders from across the Wasatch Front crowded in front of a backdrop of fire engines at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday to make a plea:
Forget the fireworks this year. It’s not worth it.
“We are urging all of you to exercise extreme caution during the July holidays,” Cox said, two days before Utahns will be able to legally light fireworks — in nonrestricted areas — for the Fourth of July, even amid this year’s dire drought.
“Specifically, please, please, please celebrate without personal fireworks,” the governor said. “These human-caused fireworks destroy property and threaten lives. And they are entirely preventable.”
As he stood in front of several city leaders, including mayors and council members from the suburbs of Sandy, Draper and Millcreek who have complained that Utah law doesn’t give them the flexibility to ban fireworks citywide without risk of lawsuits, Cox again said if he could ban fireworks statewide this year, he would.
“My hands are tied on that one,” he said, adding state law “does not allow me to do that.”
“So I’m asking you — I’m imploring you, each of you — to do the right thing,” Cox said, “and the right thing this year is to put your personal fireworks away.”
The plea may resonate with most Utahns — who according to a recent Deseret News poll don’t appear very adamant about lighting their own fireworks this July. The poll found nearly three-quarters of Utahns believe fireworks shouldn’t be set off privately, or at all. Of those, 39% believe only government entities should light fireworks during official events, and 35% said fireworks should not be used at all this year.
Cox said Utah has been fortunate not to see wildfires consume entire neighborhoods like they have in other Western states like California, Oregon and Colorado. But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen, the governor said.
“We’re not immune from those, and we’re certainly not immune this year,” Cox said. “This is not hyperbole. This is not overstated. This is not just government being government and trying to make everything a catastrophe or emergency. This is real.”
While knocking on the wooden podium, Cox said Utah has been “fortunate,” to have “avoided some of the really big” wildfires.
“But we’re not even in July yet, and that’s why we’re so nervous,” he said. “And so we just desperately need your help.”
Little interest in special legislative session
With legislative leaders not interested in convening in a special session to address Utah law on fireworks bans this year — arguing cities do in fact have the flexibility to enact their own bans, even though the state’s own legislative counsel has stated a citywide ban would violate the spirit of the law — Utah’s leaders concerned about this year’s wildfire risk have resorted to begging Utahns not to light their own fireworks this summer.
Asked by a reporter if that need to beg reflects a failure of the legislative process during the worst drought the state of Utah and the West has seen in decades, Cox said he doesn’t see it as a “failure.”
“The whole nature of the legislative process is that we learn every year, and every year we make decisions,” Cox said. “I mean, the reason we haven’t had this discussion is we haven’t had a situation like this, this deep of a drought situation.”
Cox said cities’ complaints have “certainly gotten the attention of legislators. I’ve heard that over and over and over again that they want to take a look at this.”
“So I’m actually excited that we’ll have an opportunity to revisit this with the Legislature,” Cox said.
But when asked why he won’t call a special session that Democrat lawmakers asked for, Cox said it’s because legislators “don’t want one.”
“I can call one. But we have a history in this state. We only call special sessions in rare circumstances where there is agreement,” the governor said. “You know, I can call a special session. It doesn’t mean they have to show up. It doesn’t mean they have to do anything. And so I think that would be a mistake. It wouldn’t accomplish anything at all.”
While they don’t support addressing the issue in a special session this year, legislative leaders do expect lawmakers to crack open the fireworks code in the next general session in January.
“Many legislators believe cities do have the authority to take care of this right now, and so we’re working with the cities to do that,” Cox said.
When the Legislature considers changes to state law, Cox said, he’d like to see a “more data-driven approach” to allow more restrictions using Utah’s federal drought ranking. “It would make sense to me that when we are in a situation of exceptional drought ... that we would have the ability to impose stricter fireworks restrictions based on that situation alone.”
Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told the Deseret News earlier this week Utah code “technically” doesn’t allow cities to enact citywide fireworks bans.
“But I’ll be honest with you,” Vickers said. “Under (this year’s conditions), I don’t think there’s going to be much pushback on that.”
Different interpretations of state code
While city leaders from Sandy and Draper don’t want to risk violating state law, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has joined other cities like Park City in enacting sweeping, citywide bans. Arguing her entire city is a “tinder box” in this year’s dry drought conditions, Mendenhall said she’s “very confident in our legal standing” to enact the ban.
Under Utah law, cities can prohibit lighting of fireworks using a list of locations: In “mountainous, brush-covered, forest-covered, or dry grass-covered areas;” within “200 feet of waterways, trails, canyons, washes, ravines, or similar areas;” in “wildland urban interface” areas; or in “a limited area outside the hazardous areas described.”
Or cities can ban fireworks using a different section of the code, which requires officials to designate an area using certain rules and submit a written description or a map that is readily available to the public.
Different legal interpretations of the statute has led to some cities like Salt Lake City enacting citywide bans, and others only banning fireworks in portions of their cities most at risk.
The result is a confusing patchwork of fireworks restricted areas.
Salt Lake County residents can use an interactive map to see where fireworks are and aren’t prohibited this year. But just because the map shows fireworks are legal one day, that doesn’t mean the map can’t be updated later to reflect new restrictions when they’re announced. Residents are advised to check back before lighting any fireworks.
So far this year, Utah has already seen 457 wildfires compared to 510 in 2020 and 180 in 2019. Of those, more than 80%, or 386, have been human caused, Cox said.
President Biden announces efforts to boost firefighting
The increased fireworks risk comes as the entire western U.S. faces dire wildfire risk amid climate change.
Cox was among a group of Western governors who met on a virtual call with President Joe Biden on Wednesday morning when Biden announced his administration is hiring more federal firefighters and raising their pay to a minimum of $15 an hour. The moves are part of a federal effort to ramp up response to what’s expected to be a destructive summer of wildfires across the West.
Recalling horrific scenes from wildfires in California and other states last year, Biden said “orange skies look like end-of-days smoke and ash,” The Associated Press reported.
Cox called the virtual meeting with Biden “a good call,” adding it was “good to see” the collaboration between states and the federal government.
Utah’s message, Cox said, “is we need to do more when it comes to active forest management to help reduce the risk of these wildfires in the first place.”
Shared “stewardship” like forest management and prescribed burns do work, Cox said, noting that one fire in southern Utah this year “burned right up to the area that had been treated, and the fire burned itself out.”
Cox added it was “interesting” to see Democrats “who have historically not been open to” increased forest management be more eager to partner on those efforts as states like Oregon and California have continued to burn.
‘When you have the governor of Oregon talking about forest management and using the existing timber to help with their economy, those are messages we haven’t heard in the past,” Cox said. “And we all agree that that’s what we need.”