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Weather conditions ahead of holiday are 'recipe for disaster,' fire marshal says

Published: Monday, July 2 2012 5:13 p.m. MDT

Fireworks stand on Redwood Road near Camp Williams in Bluffdale, Monday, July 2, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Read more: Fire Watch: Full coverage of active Utah wildfires

Related article: Firework restrictions throughout Utah

Read more: Gov. Herbert says he may have ability to ban fireworks, target shooting, but wants lawmakers on board

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State Fire Marshal Brent Halladay has been working with fire for decades. He's seen a lot of bad fire seasons, like the droughts of 2007, 2003 and 1999.

But none compare to 2012.

"I have never seen a summer this bad in 40 years," he said. "We're just burning up."

Last year, following an unusually wet spring, you would have to work to start a fire, he said. Now, Utah is at the opposite end of the spectrum with hot, arid conditions and strong winds. A relief is when the state can go 24 hours without a new wildfire springing up, he said.

"It's just a recipe for disaster."

As Independence Day nears, Halladay — like fire officials and residents around the state — is hoping that proactive community restrictions and common sense prevail. So far this summer, only the Pole Creek Fire is believed to have been caused by fireworks, a distinction that Halladay hopes will still be the case on July 5.

Matt Shadle, owner of Matt's Fireworks in Sandy, said sales have been slow compared to last year. That likely has as much to do with vendors entering the state and saturating the market after aerial — or "cake" — fireworks were legalized last year as it does with the fire danger.

He said aerials and smaller novelty fireworks are still very popular and he tries to educate his customers about proper safety measures and where fireworks have been banned.

"I love answering questions for everybody," he said. "We want everyone to know what they can and cannot do."

Joslyn Borup, who works at S.O.S. fireworks, said business has slowed down but it's hard to say until after July 4 how much sales were affected.

"It's not our best year, probably because of the fires, but it's still good," she said.

Allison Merrill, a West Jordan resident, said she and her husband are not planning on buying fireworks this year. She said her property is near several dry fields.

"It seems too risky with all the fires that have been going on," she said.

Some residents have called for an outright ban on fireworks statewide. An online petition had gathered more than 4,500 signatures Monday.

"It's one of the worst fire seasons Utah is facing," the petition, started by Tom Mills, states. "Houses have been burned and thousands of people have had to evacuate. How much of our state do we have to watch burn before seeing a 'ban' on fireworks?"

The cooling effect may have also been helped by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's recent statements that individuals could be held responsible financially and criminally for starting fires, Halladay said.

Firefighting costs escalate quickly. Halladay estimated that the recent Dump Fire in Saratoga Springs carried a price tag of $2 million. The Wood Hollow Fire, which was contained Sunday night after burning more than 47,000 acres, cost more than $4.5 million, he said.

"You might not get charged criminally, but that bill you're going to get will choke a mule," he said. "Every time you see that big tanker come across and drop retardant, that's 10 grand."

Halladay commended city leaders for taking the season's fire danger seriously. Nearly 100 cities had filed fire and firework restrictions with his office, including several that historically have not imposed restrictions. He said it will be up to the local agencies to enforce firework rules and residents to use their own common sense.

"You can have an enjoyable experience and not set things on fire," he said.

He's noticed a difference from last year, when the fireworks season was extended to a full 30 days in addition to aerials being legalized. In 2011, Halladay received constant complaints from residents that the season was "too long, too loud, too late," as communities around the state dealt with the month-long nuisance of their neighbors' pyrotechnic displays.

The 2012 firework season was shortened to 14 days and has been under way since July 1. But this year, Halladay said, things are quiet.

"They're just not hearing as many fireworks this year," he said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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