SALT LAKE CITY — The threat of COVID-19 prompted many communities across Utah to cancel Fourth of July and Pioneer Day events last year. Of course, there were enough personal fireworks to make up that difference.
Now, a year later, many of those events are back and Gov. Spencer Cox wants you to consider going to one of those events instead of launching off a personal display. The main reason is due to fire conditions that remain "bone dry" in Utah ahead of the July 4 weekend despite recent rain that's caused flooding in parts of the state.
But the other reason, the governor said Wednesday, is why not celebrate the holidays as a community again just like you once could but couldn't last year? For him, that's the safest alternative for those seeking the visual spectacle that is fireworks.
"Public displays are a great way to bring us together as neighborhoods, as a community, to see friends and neighbors and celebrate the holidays together," he said. "We want that piece to happen. We absolutely want people to be together and to celebrate these important milestones and anniversaries that the independence of our country and the celebration of those who settled our state."
That message was delivered Wednesday as Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and dozens of local leaders and firefighters gathered outside of the state Capitol to again ask Utahns to not use personal fireworks this year when they become permissible to launch in certain areas beginning at 11 a.m. Friday.
"I'm asking you, I'm imploring you, each of you, to do the right thing and the right thing this year is to put your personal fireworks away," Cox said, standing in front of the group and in front of a half-dozen fire trucks from different agencies across the Salt Lake Valley.
Several communities, such as Salt Lake City, Ogden, Eagle Mountain and Park City, have outright banned personal fireworks from being launched this July. They were able to do so by including them in open burning restrictions. Nearly all communities across the state have adopted areas where fireworks can and cannot be launched.
Even though there are legal spots where fireworks can be launched, Cox and several local firefighters agree that it's just not worth it this year.
"Our wildland areas are bone dry. They're incredibly susceptible to fire," said Unified Fire Authority Chief Dan Petersen. "Our irrigated areas are just not receiving the same amount of water as they used to so the shrubs around your houses are much drier than they've been in years past. You're going to have a challenge with that inside the cities and towns, not just the wildland area."
The fire concern is why the governor and local leaders are focusing their attention on public displays this year. Even cities and towns that banned personal fireworks still plan on having community displays where fireworks are launched by professionals and where firefighters can be on standby to quickly douse any fires caused by them.
And again, it's where a community can come together to celebrate old traditions that were canceled last summer.
"These celebrations are excuses for us to connect with our neighbors; and our towns, our cities (can) come together and have these wonderful experiences and teach our kids and grandkids about why we celebrate these (holidays)," Cox said. "We want people to have a great time and to celebrate. You can do that without blowing stuff up in your yard. There are other ways to celebrate."
Both he and firefighters are hopeful that conditions will improve in the coming months so people can launch off personal fireworks in the next legal fireworks window after the July holidays, which is New Year's Eve.
Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell, also the president of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, agrees with the governor's stance on community shows over personal fireworks. He pointed out that Utah's ongoing drought means there are fewer water resources available to fight fires this July.
So, like Cox, he hopes that communities can work together and find solutions to the problem. That includes skipping personal fireworks for the Fourth of July and July 24 holidays.
"Our greatest strength is our abilities to come together and address difficult issues," he said. "We're at that point right now and we're asking everybody to come together and heed the governor's warnings and the local warnings and our local fire marshal's advice in how we approach this during a very unique Fourth of July weekend."
A look into Utah's 'bone dry' conditions
Despite rain strong enough to cause flooding in the Salt Lake Valley last week and again in southern Utah this week, firefighters say the conditions across Utah are still prime for new fire starts. Draper Fire Chief Clint Smith said a report given to firefighters last week stated Utah's fuel loads, such as grass, brush and trees, had moisture content levels at 5% or lower.
Any ignition around your home has the potential to spread much faster than maybe you've seen before," he said. "I think you'd be surprised with how fast it's going to move.
–Unified Fire Authority Chief Dan Petersen
He explained that Utah's "thousand-hour fuel" moisture levels — vegetation like timber up to 8 inches in diameter that takes about 1,000 hours, or about 41 1/2 days, before it adjusts to moisture — have fallen to percentages that "have not seen in the state of Utah in decades."
In addition, rain one day can also easily dry out the next, especially with hot, dry weather. It means the recent rain across Utah doesn't really help too much for fire conditions right now.
"Fire usually expends are a certain amount of energy in drying out fuel in order for it to burn; right now, it doesn't have to expend any energy in drying it out," Smith said. "It's already primed to burn and now it can just focus on fire spread and fire growth, which we can see explosive at this time of year."
The conditions within communities aren't much better.
Take Lehi for example. Lehi Fire Chief Jeremy Craft said, during a separate press briefing on Wednesday, that many residents there have drying lawns as they abide by water restrictions imposed as a result of the state's extreme drought. The problem is a spark on yellowing grass can spread to shrubs, which can spread to homes.
This was also the reason behind Salt Lake City's decision to ban fireworks and open fires last week. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said "essentially the city is combustible" due to dry vegetation in the valley and foothills alike.
Both of these situations are bad news for firefighters and why there's concern heading into this holiday weekend. A new fire can spread quickly if it starts in the right spot.
"Any ignition around your home has the potential to spread much faster than maybe you've seen before," Petersen said. "I think you'd be surprised with how fast it's going to move."
What can easily happen
Fireworks were blamed for 65 fires in 2020, although the governor pointed out that statistic doesn't include "hundreds" of community fire calls reported annually due to the fireworks. The Traverse fire was one of those 65 fires last year, leading to early-morning evacuations as it threatened homes in Lehi and Draper.
So sad to see this fire in Lehi. pic.twitter.com/jLB2BH5yDH— Paul K Thatcher (@PaulThatcher22) June 28, 2020
Lehi Mayor Mark Johnson said that fire is something that he and many city leaders haven't forgotten even if no homes were destroyed and the city escaped mass devastation.
"The impact that it had on our community, none of us want to go through that again," he said. "However, the drought this year is even worse than it was last year. We're all very aware of the capacity of reliving that experience and we don't want to do it."
In the shadow of the Traverse fire, Lehi leaders on Tuesday passed a measure to extend more restricted areas this July. They opened four parks where people can launch personal fireworks, too. Johnson said that the city still wants residents to be "careful and cautious" within the legal zones.
But what happened last year is the type of danger Smith and his colleagues are "nervous" about. One spark can burn down an entire neighborhood given the dry conditions and if crews aren't able to respond fast enough.
"That's a prime example of why we have these restrictions in place, why we have certain types of fireworks that are banned in the state of Utah," he said. "That showed how quickly it can spread in the middle of the night, forcing people out of their homes with no ability to really plan other than to get their families out safely."
Not just fireworks
There have been 457 wildfires already this year entering this week, according to Cox. About 4 in every 5 have been caused by people's actions, whether accidental or illegal acts.
Of course, it's not just fireworks that can spark a fire.
Cox also pleaded for those who plan to camp this holiday weekend to only start campfires in spots where it is legal to do so. If you start a campfire, make sure it's completely out before you leave, he said.
"Make sure that you take your fire extinguisher with you and the campfires are completely removed and put out," Cox said. "(It should be) so cold that you can stick your hand in there. If you don't feel comfortable sticking your hand out there, then don't leave. You're not done yet."
People are also encouraged to secure any trailer chains so they don't drag and cause sparks that can ignite a fire. Parking on dry grass is another big no-no, as is most outdoor target shooting, the governor reminded Wednesday.
Bureau of Land Management officials, who were not present at Wednesday's event at the Utah Capitol, offered a similar message heading into the holiday weekend. Fireworks and exploding targets are banned on all federally-managed lands
"We hope everyone enjoys the holiday safely and responsibly by planning ahead and preparing for crowd," said Greg Sheehan, director of BLM Utah. "Please stop, think, and use Fire Sense strategies to reduce the risk of wildfires on your public lands."