It’s that time of year again. With the Fourth of July and Pioneer Day just around the corner, and Utah facing yet another drought-ridden summer, state leaders are asking Utahns to exercise caution when using personal fireworks.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox gathered last Thursday with a group of state and local leaders to stress the importance of firework safety, one day before fireworks went on sale in the state.

“Using fireworks in nonapproved areas — near dry grass and brush — and not having a proper way to extinguish a fire has been disastrous in the past and could be again this year,” Cox said. “If you’re open to just skipping fireworks, it’s a great year to do that. But if you are going to use fireworks, you have to use them responsibly.”

The governor also took to Twitter to ask Utahns to be responsible, noting that 83% of the state is experiencing “extreme drought or worse.”

A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that more than a third of Utahns say government entities should be the only ones allowed to set off fireworks, and a quarter say fireworks should not be used at all.

Here’s how a few Utahns plan to celebrate this year in light of the drought.

Life in the danger zone

As central as fireworks are to celebrating the summer holidays, many Utahns already live in places with prohibitions in place due to high risk of wildfires. Personal fireworks were a staple around the Fourth for Zachariah Jarvis, until he moved to the east bench of Bountiful three years ago.

Fireworks are restricted in his neighborhood because of their proximity to the canyons north of Salt Lake City, which are covered in dry grass during the summer. Jarvis said he misses setting off his own fireworks, and his son is “very disappointed” every year, but he agrees with the decision.

“I think it makes sense for the state to regulate at this point,” he said. “I mean, the fire danger is just too high at this point for me. I would probably be disappointed if they weren’t regulating.”

That’s because fires have threatened nearby subdivisions in recent years, one of which could have put his home in danger had crews not been able to contain it in time.

“We’ve never had to evacuate yet, but we’ve had neighbors that have had to leave their homes,” he said. “Two years ago, somebody was working on something in their yard and had a spark catch, that’s what caught the big one. They were afraid, because it was getting into the backcountry and moving out of control for a couple of days.”

Should Utah’s drought lead to a ban on fireworks? What our poll says
Opinion: Arguments against firework bans are going up in smoke — but we are still playing with fire

Jarvis said he and his neighbors have quickly learned not to be bothered by the ban on fireworks in their area, because he sees that the risks aren’t worth it. He thinks fireworks should be allowed in most instances but is grateful that there are limitations in place to protect homes and wilderness lands.

“We’re all in a heightened state of awareness that comes from living in a tinderbox,” he said.

When she lived in Indiana, Gail Hruska was used to setting off fireworks every year. That changed when she moved to Kanab five years ago, shortly before the Brian Head Fire torched more than a dozen homes not too far away.

“That started because somebody was burning weeds in their backyard and it got away from them. Where I’m from, that would have been no big deal,” she said. But because of the drier climate in Utah, “that was a huge deal that cost millions. ... That made me sit back and say, ‘Oh, I can’t just have a fire because I want to, I need to think about how this could impact others.’”

People watch a fireworks show from Rock Canyon Park in Provo on Saturday, July 4, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Since then, she has made due by watching public firework displays, and has prepared her grandkids for the reality of Utah’s climate when they come to visit. Hruska said that although Utah is the second driest state in the nation, she’s been surprised that in many ways the culture around fireworks — and water use in general — seems to be more in line with wet, forested states in the Pacific Northwest than attitudes in Arizona, Nevada or New Mexico.

Kanab’s culture is such that many seem put off by being asked to limit firework use, she said, but even that has changed slightly as the drought has grown more dire.

“It gets complicated when you start saying, ‘It’s infringing on my rights,’” she said. “It’s just fireworks, it’s not really a right. ... I like how Gov. Cox leads by example. I think if our leadership in any capacity comes out and says, ‘Hey, let’s rethink this and work together,’ I think that is always a positive thing. It’s not going to work 100% of the time, but it is a positive step in the right direction.”

‘Unfortunately, we can’t be adults about it’

In an average year, Chandler Millward, of Layton, estimates he spends $200 to $300 on personal fireworks. Although he doesn’t live in a high-risk area, he has already decided against buying fireworks to light off in his cul-de-sac.

“Honestly, it’s based on personal experience, seeing what things look like locally, seeing what our yard looks like,” he said. “A lot of our plants haven’t done nearly as well, they’ve been dry. We usually water three times a week at this time of year, and up until now we’ve only watered once a week. It’s like doing the bare minimum. Our trees are stressed and drying out, so that’s really what’s influenced that decision.”

Millward said many of his neighbors’ lawns are similarly dry and he worries that if something goes wrong with a firework, it could catch lawns or even homes on fire.

“It’s kind of a bummer, it’s kind of sad,” he said. “We like to do them, but I just feel like it’s a little irresponsible right now. ... It’s a difficult thing to manage. I think the only way to reduce fire risk is really to limit fireworks during years that are this exceptionally dry.”

Like Millward, Steven Evans, of American Fork, doesn’t like the idea of firework bans in general but said they are necessary in places given that not everyone is going to act responsibly.

“It’s just one of those things where, unfortunately, we can’t be adults about it,” he said. “Therefore, sometimes we just all have to sacrifice a little. If they went away, I’d miss it, but I wouldn’t go out and riot in the streets or burn buildings down.”

“I’m not a big fan of government,” he added. “But we need government to provide an awful lot of things for us. As long as people aren’t willing to understand the danger that their actions can cause, at some point in time, government has to step in. I mean, that’s the whole point of government — to protect us when we need protection from ourselves.”

View Comments

Evans thinks that for some, fireworks — especially aerials and other highly visible and explosive varieties — have become too central to celebrating the Fourth of July. Still, he doesn’t see much risk in setting off a few small fountains or sparklers in the street — which is how he plans to celebrate next week.

“Unfortunately, because of a few bad apples, everybody else gets, in essence, punished for it,” he said.

When are fireworks legal in Utah?

Fireworks are legal in Utah from July 2-5, and July 22-25, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Legal hours are extended on July 4 and July 24 until midnight. Fireworks can be sold through July 25.

The state fire marshal has a list of fire restrictions by city, or you can check your local city website or local fire authority to see where fireworks are allowed in your area. Utah’s Fire Sense website has tips for safely lighting fireworks.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.