It’s the Fourth of July this weekend, which means beer, burgers, and parades. But in many cities across the West, this holiday weekend will be missing one celebratory staple due to fears that they could spark wildfires: fireworks.
The West has faced a damaging drought. This week’s record heat wave, though, has made matter worse by heating up the ground and sapping already minimal moisture from the region. That means already dangerous wildfire conditions are turning downright catastrophic. That’s led to fireworks bans throughout the region in an attempt to make a bad situation that much worse.
Portland has been on the epicenter of some of the most extreme heat this week. The city setting records on three consecutive days for its all-time high temperature, culminating in a day where it hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius). But it also hasn’t rained in the past two weeks and has gotten just 32% of its normal rainfall since April 1. In response, the city’s Fire Department issued an immediate ban on the use of fireworks on Tuesday.
Bend, Oregon also issued restrictions on fireworks on Monday as part of a state of emergency. It’s in effect until July 9, and comes with a hefty $750 fine for violators, though two professional shows will still go on. On Tuesday, Oregon’s Tualatin, Milwaukie, and Clark counties instated similar restrictions, as did the three Washington cities of Camas, Washougal, and Battle Ground. Several cities and counties in Utah—where the governor recently asked residents to pray for rain—are also banning pyrotechnics this July 4.
If this sounds like overkill to you, keep in mind that pyrotechnics spark an average of 18,500 fires every year when they come into contact with cars, buildings, and trees. Fireworks caused last week’s Sky Fire in Fresno County, California, which thankfully only burned 26 acres. Last summer, attendees of a gender reveal party sparked a major fire in San Bernadino, California with the smoke from a pyrotechnic device. (A similar 2017 pyrotechnic-themed reveal in Arizona resulted in a 47,000-acre fire that caused $8.2 million in damage.) And in 2017, a 15-year-old unwittingly set off a blaze with fireworks that charred more than 30,000 acres in Oregon.
More than 100 fire scientists recently signed a letter asking for a broad ban on fireworks. Among the reasons are research showing a shocking spike in human-ignited fires on July 4; the holiday is far and away the day when the most wildfires light up. Fireworks are one cause, but barbeques, errant cigarettes tossed at gatherings, and other unfortunate behavior also play a role. That said, pyrotechnics still play a role in the chaos. Climate change is also making fire weather worse, and the two factors together are a nightmare to consider.
“Adapting to longer, more intense fire seasons will require reconsidering some traditions and activities,” the researchers wrote. “As you celebrate this Fourth of July, stay safe and help out the firefighters, your neighbors and yourself by preventing accidental wildfires.”
That’s particularly true this year. With experts worried that this year could be the West’s most explosive fire season ever, it’s important that we every possible step to ensure wildfires don’t start in the first place.