I feel almost silly as I write this. It’s raining outside and temperatures are in the 50s. I just got soaked on my morning bike ride. But the desert never hides its true identity for long this time of year. By the time everyone celebrates independence this Saturday, temperatures should be back in the 90s and the air should be bone dry.
I can almost hear the objections welling up through my keyboard. What about outlawing other things that cause fires, such as lightning or automobiles? Have I never read John Adams’ letter to his wife, in which he said he believed that, forever more, Independence Day “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other”? Do I really want the nanny state to protect us from ourselves? What about time honored traditions?
Let’s talk about traditions. If repetition is a key ingredient to something becoming a tradition, then the injuries caused by our annual bonfires and illuminations have become traditional, as well.
A century ago, Salt Lake City was host to the 1920 national convention of the National Education Association, right during the July 4th weekend. The city was preparing a clubhouse in Liberty Park as a place to attract NEA crowds for holiday festivities. Unfortunately, sparklers, reportedly used by children, burned the place down before anyone could celebrate.
That led Mayor Edmund A. Bock to ask the city commission to outlaw sparklers, along with fireworks, which at the time were completely banned in the city.
Mount Pleasant had a particularly memorable Fourth that year. Fireworks destroyed the First Presbyterian Church and damaged the Mutual Creamery Company and two other wooden structures, as well as 18 tons of hay.
I chose 1920 only because it was precisely a century ago. I could have picked any year, such as 1899. Three people died that year and 1,074 were injured nationwide. Of those, 143 were injured by guns or revolvers.
I never win any popularity contests by calling for an end to private fireworks. I assure you I love both Independence Day and Pioneer Day. I really do. I celebrate each gladly and love to enjoy professionally produced fireworks displays.
I also am aware that nationwide statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission show injuries from fireworks are down slightly from a few years ago. Yes, many fires this time of year are caused by something other than fireworks. Mother nature has a hand in some of them.
But a KSL-TV report last year found that fireworks-related fires have spiked in Utah since 2011.
The Wasatch Front is a dry desert, and it is particularly dry and hot this time of year. That makes July a horrible time to let people play with fire.
This year is unique in that the pandemic has forced the cancellation of many traditional public fireworks shows. The lack of public shows may encourage people to do more at home, perhaps even in areas where fireworks are banned.
That’s the other thing. The Wasatch Front has become a patchwork of areas where private fireworks are either legal or restricted, adding confusion that would go away with a statewide ban.
Maybe it is indeed silly telling the state to outlaw private fireworks. It’s already illegal to light them at any time other than July 2-5 or July 22-25, and that didn’t stop some people, including those who started last weekend’s fire on Traverse Mountain, almost a full week before they were to be legal in some places, although not on that mountain.
It feels about as useless as telling people to wear masks during a pandemic.