Some cities across the American west are banning fireworks ahead of the Fourth of July weekend amid fears that pyrotechnics could spark catastrophic wildfires during a historic heatwave.
Authorities warn that the combination of record-high temperatures, extreme drought conditions, and at-home fireworks creates a tinderbox-like situation that could quickly turn devastating.
In Portland, Oregon – which shattered records on Monday when it hit a high of 116F (47C) – the fire department issued a prohibition on all fireworks because of the high temperatures and dry conditions, according to the city’s ABC affiliate, KATU. Bend and Tualatin, Oregon, have also banned the use of fireworks through 9 July, the news station reported. Bend still has two public fireworks events scheduled for the holiday, however.
“If we don’t take this proactive step now, I fear the consequences could be devastating,” the Portland fire chief, Sara Boone, said in a statement. “It is not easy to make a decision like this so close to our national holiday, but as fire chief I feel I have a higher responsibility to sometimes make unpopular decisions during unprecedented times to protect life, property and the environment.”
Several areas in south-west Washington state have issued bans as well. Officials in Clark county have banned the sale and use of fireworks in parts of the county from 29 June until midnight on 4 July because of significant fire risks.
“We recognize that this decision will cause some hardship to some residents’ celebration plans as well as businesses and non-profit organizations that sell fireworks,” said Eileen Quiring O’Brien, the county council chair, according to KATU. “We empathize with all who are affected, but we must follow county codes. They are in place to protect the welfare and safety of Clark county residents.”
Nick Swinhart, the fire chief of the Camas-Washougal area in Washington state, said that banning the use and sale of fireworks there was a “very difficult decision to make” but, “in consideration of the elevated fire danger, it was deemed the only decision possible to ensure the safety of our neighborhoods, communities, and green spaces”.
“The threat of fireworks causing a fire in these extreme conditions is too high to allow the use of fireworks this July 4th,” Swinhart added.
In Yreka, California – located less than 30 miles from the raging Lava Fire, which has already consumed more than 13,000 acres – city officials also announced a ban on fireworks, according to KOBI5, an NBC affiliate. “Due to adverse conditions, all public fireworks displays and sale are prohibited [within] city limits until further notice … Fireworks activity [within] city limits will be prosecuted,” they said in a statement.
There have been local bans on private fireworks use elsewhere in the US west, including some municipalities Utah and Montana. Some cities, such as Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and tourist venues have canceled their shows.
“The grass always catches on fire … Why are we doing something that causes fire when fire’s our biggest issue?” said Winnie DelliQuadri, a town projects manager in Steamboat Springs, according to the Associated Press.
The Yavapai-Apache Nation, which has routinely held a fireworks show outside its casino near Camp Verde in central Arizona, has also canceled its display, the AP reported.
“This year, with conditions being worse than last year, we decided in May that we would not have fireworks,” a spokesman for the nation’s Cliff Castle Casino hotel told the AP. “Based on the large fires currently burning in and around our community, we’re happy with our decision.”
Fireworks have already ignited several small wildfires this year; one was in central California and the other, sparked by a small child, was in Utah. In 2020, a firework set off at a “gender-reveal” party started a wildfire in California, resulting in the death of one firefighter.
“As a fire scientist, I’m bracing myself for this fire season because of how dry and hot it is already,” Jennifer Balch, the director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, told the AP. “I think fireworks right now are a terrible idea.”
Experts and officials worry that the 2021 wildfire season could eclipse that of 2020 – the worst on record. Joe Biden is scheduled to meet Wednesday with his cabinet and leaders of Western states to discuss the heightened wildfire threat, according to the Los Angeles Times.