There will be efforts on Capitol Hill to review current laws on the use of fireworks after several episodes of property damage caused by wayward pyrotechnics during the July holiday season. While home fireworks displays are a cherished tradition for many families, there are good reasons to weigh their harm versus their celebratory benefits.
On the minus side, they cause significant damage by starting fires and contribute to poor air quality. Some military veterans afflicted with PTSD say they can be nerve-wracking, families with infants report restless nights and pet owners talk about jittery animals. There are laws governing the time, manner and use of fireworks in Utah, but they are notoriously hard to enforce. Some aficionados choose to blatantly disregard time constraints, and neighborhood explosions at 2 a.m. are hardly conducive to public tranquility.
Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, has opened a legislative file on the matter after constituent complaints and an incident in her town in which aerial fireworks caused a brush fire and damaged a home. Before that, aerial fireworks sent flames toward an apartment building in nearby Midvale, where two residents were forced to jump from three-story windows. Poulson and others are even talking about an outright ban, which has already generated pushback from fans of the practice.
After a home was damaged, the Cottonwood Heights City Council voted to ban further use of aerial fireworks, an act not explicitly permitted under Utah law. Technically, a city may order emergency restrictions after an assessment by the state fire marshal. City leaders felt they needed to act quickly, which raises a legitimate question about where authority should lie in determining if, where and when fireworks can be set off.
Whether individual cities should own that authority is a question that will be raised in the legislative discussion. It is an attractive proposition, in that local government is best positioned to assess the risks versus the rewards of such displays in their respective jurisdictions. But vesting cities with full control over the matter could lead to a patchwork of conflicting rules and ordinances in which fireworks might be banned in one area but allowed and sold a few streets away.
Aerial fireworks — the kind that elicit the most “oohs and ahs” and those most likely to cause damage — were made legal in Utah only in 2011. At the time, they were allowed during the entire month of July. Follow-up legislation limited their use to one week surrounding each holiday. Lawmakers might want to consider further limiting use to the holidays themselves, and perhaps a day or two before, or, alternatively, to once again restricting large fireworks to professional shows regulated by local authorities. Citizen surveys suggest that some action would enjoy support.
There are those who rightly look upon the use of fireworks as an expression of civic pride and patriotic fervor. The problem is, their use affects other people, often in negative ways. Lawmakers should look at statutory changes that would allow for more state and local control over when, where and how fireworks may be deployed during a holiday period that happens to coincide with the hottest and driest time of the year.