DENVER – Drought and wildfire fears are snuffing out some Fourth of July festivities this year.
From Utah to Indiana, state and local governments are calling off annual fireworks displays out of fear that a stray rocket could ignite tinder-dry brush and trigger a wildfire. They’re also warning residents not to use fireworks, sparklers or Roman candles in backyards.
The worry is especially acute in the West, where crews are already battling out-of-control blazes in several states. Parts of the Midwest are affected, too, after weeks without any significant rain.
“We usually have a fireworks barge and a huge gala that attracts thousands of people,” said Bill Appleby of the Grand Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which represents the lakeside resort town about 90 miles northwest of Denver in the Rocky Mountains. The display is usually safe out on the water, but “we just can’t risk an errant ember.”
It’s not uncommon for communities to delay or cancel fireworks shows because of drought conditions, but this year, the practice is more widespread.
Last year, about a third of the country was in drought. Now nearly three-quarters is, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, a weekly analysis of dryness across the nation. The parched conditions have been aggravated by a dry, mild winter and above-normal temperatures.
Fires have charred more than 1.8 million acres this year in the U.S., and much of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have been under red-flag warnings for extreme fire danger.
In Colorado, where hundreds of homes have been destroyed by flames in the past month, firefighters have said they don’t have the time or resources to stand watch over public events. At least nine public fireworks displays have been called off.
Montana hasn’t called for an end to big displays yet, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer is urging people not to set off their own fireworks and has left the door open to canceling public shows.
Officials have also canceled displays or issued warnings restricting private fireworks in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Utah and Wisconsin.
“Nobody wants to not have fireworks,” said Chris Magnuson, of Albion, Ind., a town of about 2,300 that postponed its annual July Fourth fireworks show to Labor Day weekend after county officials banned outdoor burning. “It’s just not safe enough.”
The danger is real: Fireworks were blamed for more than 15,500 blazes and $36 million in property damage in 2010, according to the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass.
States have also clamped down on all kinds of outdoor fire hazards, including campfires, smoking and the use of portable grills.
Paul Forman, who owns Independence Fireworks and Forman Blasters Pyrotechnics in Peru, Ind., said he understands the safety concerns, but his business has been devastated. Four customers called off fireworks shows this week, and he anticipated more cancellations before the holiday. He said his business had dropped from about 50 customers a day to a total of 11.
“This emergency order hit me like a two-by-four,” Forman said.
Forman was going to deliver the fireworks in Bunker Hill, Ind., which had scheduled a show Saturday night following a parade, a picnic and the local Little League championships. Instead, Little League officials in the town of 900 about 60 miles north of Indianapolis canceled the show because of the fire risk.
Carol Russell had been looking forward to taking her family to the fireworks show. Her kids – three teens and a 9-year-old – are growing up, and she said this might be the last year they thought the display was cool.
“Tradition is a big deal for us. It’s like a big bubble burst,” Russell said.
Some states are grappling with just how far they can go in issuing bans. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said she considers fireworks a risk that can be avoided, but state law allows cities and counties to ban only certain classifications of fireworks and where they can be used. More than half of the state’s 33 counties and its largest cities have already imposed restrictions and urged residents to attend organized events instead of setting off their own.
“We should all be able to agree that preventing fires that could devastate our communities is a priority that transcends politics,” said Martinez, who plans to push legislation again next year that would establish a system allowing for specially tailored temporary bans during extreme droughts.
Leaders of the fireworks industry, which brought in nearly $1 billion in sales nationally in 2011, question whether firework bans are legal. Steve Graves, executive director of the Indiana Fireworks Association, said people should be given credit for common sense.
Indiana law allows fireworks from June 29 to July 9 regardless of whether local burn bans are in place. Some communities have declared drought disaster emergencies to enact bans in an attempt to get around the law.
“Instead of talking about safety, they decided to treat Hoosiers like they’re a bunch of idiots that can’t think for themselves,” Graves said.
At the TNT Fireworks stand just outside Helena some customers planned to heed the calls to keep their fireworks under wraps for July Fourth, said stand co-owner Anna Richards.
“Would I rather make money or would I rather see Montana burn?” Richards said. “There’s more to life than these two weeks.”