By Linda Poon
The worst day for human-caused fires in the U.S. is July 4. That’s a particular problem this year, as a historic heat wave and record drought have exacerbated the risk of wildfires.
That’s why more than 150 fire scientists signed a letter
this week urging people in the West to skip fireworks this Independence
Day, just as the U.S. enters peak wildfire season. Blazes are already
raging in several states, with some spreading through tens of thousands
of acres in California, Colorado and Arizona.
In response, some cities and counties in California, Oregon, Arizona and Utah have canceled public displays, and imposed restrictions or outright bans on the use of personal fireworks. But it won’t be easy to tamp down that bombastic American tradition.
places like Aspen, Colorado, are trying out alternative flashy
displays. At the popular “Old Fashioned Fourth of July'' festival, the
Aspen Chamber Resort Association is hoping to dazzle attendees with a
laser show instead of traditional fireworks. In 2018, the association
tried a choreographed drone display. “You have to evolve,” a
spokesperson told Bloomberg CityLab that year — but smoke from a wildfire that broke out just a day before the holiday canceled that show, too.
Other places are cracking down on personal use, which can be especially risky and became a more popular hobby during the pandemic. In the San Francisco Bay Area, sheriffs confiscated
15,000 pounds of illegal fireworks, along with $1 million in cash, from
two residents who were also operating illegal sales out of a warehouse
in Oakland. In a dramatic twist of events in
Los Angeles Wednesday night, police who were seizing homemade fireworks
caused an accidental explosion as they were attempting to safely
detonate the explosives. Seventeen people were injured, including
police, in the blast that destroyed the specialized bomb truck
containing the fireworks.
L.A. is also using incentives to dissuade people from setting off their own fireworks. The police department launched a buyback program on Wednesday, receiving some 500 pounds of fireworks
in exchange for gift cards. And police are sending cease-and-desist
letters to online marketplaces like Craigslist that were hosting illegal
Fires are not the only environmental concern. Cities in China have banned fireworks
before to prevent spikes in air pollution. In the U.S., fireworks
release 42% more pollutants into the air than on a normal day, according
to a 2020 study.
as the effects of climate change worsen, wildfires loom large as an
urgent reason to rethink the explosive pastime. “We're getting to the
point where we need to think seriously about restricting the use of
fireworks,” says Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist at the University of
Colorado, Boulder. “Frankly, we're asking too much of our firefighters
who are probably hunkered down waiting to see where the wildfires are
going to start.”
Between 1992 and 2015, humans started 7,000 wildfires
on July 4, according to Balch. Of all the fires reported that day
from 2014 to 2018, more than half were sparked by fireworks, according
to a separate analysis
from the National Fire Prevention Association. Experts warn that
extreme hot and dry conditions enable sparks and falling embers to more
easily ignite trees, shrubs and other vegetation. The slightest breeze
can carry that fire far and wide.
a teen sparked the massive Eagle Creek Fire by throwing two fireworks
into the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. It raged for three months,
blowing some into Portland and burning through nearly 50,000 acres of
land. And in 2020, a smoke-generating “pyrotechnic device” set off
during a baby gender reveal party ignited the El Dorado fire, which tore
through more than 22,000 acres of San Bernardino County, California.
percent of wildfires caused by humans has inched up over the last few
years. “That's something that's also very much related to our
development patterns and our settlement, in that we are building more
and more homes into flammable landscapes," Balch says.
Despite the warnings, the show must go on for some Americans — with some calling the city bans “anti-American” and at least one state’s legislative leaders refraining from any statewide action. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, has been pushing
the Biden administration to allow fireworks at Mount Rushmore, after
the National Parks Service denied the state’s request in March.
Fireworks there have been halted since 2009 due to safety concerns,
including fire hazards. They resumed for the first time last year under
Donald Trump’s presidency.
But with large
swaths of America already on fire, and 2021 setting the perfect
conditions for yet another intense wildfire season, perhaps the most
patriotic thing for those in the American West to do is lay off the