Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson holds up a piece of dry brush as she, Salt Lake County Emergency Management Director Clint Mecham and others gather on the trail at Dimple Dell Park near the Wrangler Trailhead in Sandy on Monday, June 21, 2021. Officials urged residents to not set off fireworks this year and celebrate in other ways. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
SANDY — For Salt Lake City Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and her family, the Independence Day and Pioneer Day holidays normally end with celebratory lighting of fireworks with neighbors.
However, as Utah’s drought conditions continue to worsen from last year and with no relief in sight, her family made a decision to skip that tradition this year. They’ll celebrate the July holidays this year with a barbecue and games instead.
And with Salt Lake County officials — like the state — unable to completely ban launching personal fireworks, they are asking residents to forgo fireworks this year.
“Just because you’re in an area that allows fireworks or doesn’t have a ban, doesn’t mean you should use them. … My plea to the people of Salt Lake County is to be smart,” Winder Newton said. “We believe in liberty and freedom, but we also believe in personal responsibility 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.”
She, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake County Emergency Management Director Clint Mecham were among the leaders who gathered at Dimple Dell Park Monday to address the growing concern regarding personal fireworks, which will go on sale in Utah Thursday and will be legal to launch in some areas of the state beginning July 2.
As those dates near, Wilson again banned fireworks from being launched at county buildings and parks. She also urged residents eager to view fireworks to instead watch public fireworks displays planned by various cities that have resources on hand to put out any potential fires. In addition, she called on municipalities to review their fireworks policies ahead of the legal launch period.
That’s not to say county officials wouldn’t like to do more to handle the concerns tied to fireworks this year, they just can’t. Wilson said she isn’t able by law to issue a countywide ban on fireworks, which she pinned on a pandemic-related bill passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year. She called it “unfortunate” but also reiterated why it was important for municipalities to review their situations ahead of July 2.
“We’re left with some important tools right now and this is local decision-making, which in this case is our cities making some choices,” she said
Once a city or town has a concrete plan, it will forward that information over to the county officials who will update an interactive map they created to reflect areas where fireworks can and cannot be launched beginning 11 a.m. on July 2.
Fireworks were already banned in all unincorporated areas of Salt Lake County through an executive order issued by Gov. Spencer Cox earlier this month. Those areas, Wilson pointed out, are generally found by the county’s foothills and canyons, as well as its west bench.
Many of the restrictions are actually the same in years past. Mecham said that fire calls in Salt Lake County typically jump 35% to 50% during the legal firework period, which is July 2 to July 5 and July 22 to July 25 from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (and midnight on July 4 and July 24). That jump, he said, usually results in an “exceptional strain” for firefighters and other first responders.
But this year is setting up to be worse than what’s typical. For instance, the Great Basin Coordination Center — the agency that handles wildfire suppression for most of Utah, including Salt Lake County — lists the county and northern Utah in the “above normal” fire risk category between now and at least the end of August within its fire danger projections.
That’s why there’s a greater focus that fireworks aren’t launched in areas where they are banned. Launching fireworks outside of the legal time frame to launch them and in restricted areas can result in a $1,000 fine and possibly even costs of damage or fire suppression, Mecham said.
He encourages anyone who sees a fire that could threaten lives to call 911. For fire emergencies not considered life-threatening, people are encouraged to call 801-799-3000 in Salt Lake City and Sandy or 801-840-4000 for anywhere else in Salt Lake County.
A call for state action
Cox acknowledged last week he can’t issue a statewide ban on fireworks much like Wilson can’t issue a countywide ban. While the governor said he would issue that ban if he could; Wilson side-stepped that question Monday just because it was purely hypothetical.
Hypothetical or not, Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, said Monday she’s irked by the situation both are in. She argues that fireworks pose a threat to life and property even more this year and the current laws make it difficult for communities to handle the situation, especially since there is no way for them to handle the sale of fireworks in Utah.
It’s why she said she filed a bill for a future Utah Legislature general session that would address fireworks restrictions at times when there is severe fire danger like what Utah is experiencing now. She likened it to traffic laws that are designed to keep people safe when there’s a risk for injury or property damage.
“Our current one-size-fits-all statute regarding fireworks is tying the hands of local communities and we need to allow them the local control to reduce fire risk and address the concerns that each community has,” she said. “We know we’re getting hotter and our wildfire seasons are getting longer. I think we need an additional statute that unshackles our local communities to be able to address the risks in their communities.”
Barring an unexpected emergency session where a bill is passed between now and July 2, there’s no way those restrictions will be in place for the July holidays. That’s also why she applauded Winder Newton and her family for making adjustments to their holiday traditions.
“Let’s celebrate with a little tweak this year,” Harrison said, “to allow the professionals to use fireworks and keep our communities safe.”
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