In retrospect, I probably should have noticed the warning signs — the giggling sounds of adult voices, the people running for safety after successfully lighting the fuse. Nothing bad happened, other than I was given a momentary scare as I felt the heat and heard the whooshing sound. They didn’t intend to scare me. Even at my customary slow pace, I had surprised them as much as they surprised me.
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But that doesn’t mean something bad couldn’t have happened. Those things have been known to veer off course. Many years ago, a stray missile lit a bush on fire in our front yard.
July is a particularly incendiary month in Utah and most of the West. The weather is bone dry and hot. You can count on those conditions, year after year.
Yet whenever I suggest the state should outlaw fireworks all together, I typically encounter some readers who complain that the “nanny state” should stay out of our lives.
That’s an odd statement, considering one of the legitimate purposes of government is protect people from the reckless acts of others. But if an argument is to be made for continuing to allow fireworks, it relies on an ironic twist to that complaint. The “nanny state” may be the reason why fireworks are proliferating nationwide.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which exists to nanny anyone who sells a product, has a list of requirements for fireworks manufactured for home use. Among the rules, fuses must burn between 3 and 9 seconds before igniting the combustibles. Also, “The shortest dimension of the base of a fireworks device that stands upright must be at least 1/3 of the overall height of device or must pass a 12 degree tilt test.”
Get out your calipers and compasses.
These quality control measures, imposed by a bureaucracy John Adams never envisioned when he spoke of “illuminations” celebrating independence, are undoubtedly a big reason why injuries have declined.
The American Pyrotechnics Association says injuries were reported at 38.3 percent for every 100,000 pounds of explosives detonated in 1976. By 2016, that figure was a scant 4.1 percent.
And make no mistake, Americans are lighting fuses as never before. The same report said Americans went from consuming 29 million pounds of the stuff in 1976 to more than 268.4 million pounds in 2016.
At the same time, states from coast to coast have begun legalizing at least some fireworks for private use, with only three — the ironically green and water-rich Delaware, New Jersey and Massachusetts — completely outlawing them.
Also, we have become do-it-yourself patriots. Newsweek reported last year that as recently as 2000, one-third of all fireworks were exploded as part of a professional display. By 2016, that figure had fallen to less than 10 percent.
That constitutes a wave of driveways filled with people lighting matches, cupping their hands and running away as fuses catch.
Despite the reduction in injuries, it’s sobering to read the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s report of the accidents that do occur. The one covering the year 2015 included a disturbing number of deaths due to people attempting to shoot fireworks from mortars they placed atop their heads. One such description ends with a telling, “The victim had been consuming alcohol prior to the incident.”
In Utah, the concern ought to be less with personal injury and more with the unique, tinder dry conditions. That’s why several cities have imposed restrictions in certain areas, and it’s presumably why Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams urged people to consider not lighting anything this year.
Bucking the nationwide trend, state lawmakers here recently cut the number of legal fireworks days in half. One assumes the possibility of unsupervised mischief rises the farther one gets from the official holiday. Utah also is unique in that it celebrates two holidays in July.
Due to holiday deadlines, I am writing this before the Fourth. Last year, however, was a disaster, with homes destroyed or threatened by fires in Utah, Tooele and Salt Lake counties.
I still think the prudent thing would be to outlaw private fireworks completely, and not just because I hate surprises on my bike ride. But the “nanny state,” city councils and the Legislature have given at least some hope that reasonable people can enjoy the holiday at home without endangering others. Time will tell whether unreasonable people mess that up.