Ryan Vance is a Policy Research intern with the Libertas Institute, a free-market think tank in Utah. He is currently working on a Master’s degree in Political Psychology through Arizona State University.
The rising heat and increased drought has been hitting Utah incredibly hard this year. There are many serious concerns brought about by this inclement weather, none so controversial as lighting fireworks on the Fourth of July and Pioneer Day. Considering the disasters that have permeated this particular drought, this concern is understandable.
The Summer of 2021 has seen an inordinate number of fires. In the month of June alone, over 40,000 acres of land have been razed by wildfires. These acres of fire have been dispersed over areas like Horescorn, Book Cluffs, Thompson Springs, and Grand County.
While most of these fires have not been caused by fireworks, there’s an understandable fear that fireworks have the potential to exacerbate this problem, and cities have acted accordingly. Some cities — including Ogden, Midvale, Holladay, Cottonwood Heights, Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Eagle Mountain and South Weber — have been implementing full-fledged fireworks bans, prohibiting any use of fireworks within city limits on the upcoming holidays.
The motives behind the city bans are understandable in the context of recent disasters, but are they legitimate and legal to implement in the context of state law?
Utah law dictates where cities can and cannot ban the discharge of fireworks. The legislation prohibits municipalities from banning the igniting of fireworks during the approved timeframes, which includes July 2 through July 5 and July 22 through July 25.
The statute does allow municipalities to ban fireworks in certain areas with hazardous environmental conditions, in accordance with Subsection 15A-5-202.5(1)(b), but the definition of hazardous environmental conditions is explicitly limited to areas like mountains, brush areas, forest, dry grass, wild land, agriculture areas, and trails.
Based on the current definition stated above, a city-wide ban would be extremely difficult to justify. You would have to make the case that just about every part of the city contains these environmental conditions, and even then, in order for the ban to be legitimate, you would have to ban on the basis of those areas, not the city as a whole.
This means cities instituting full fireworks bans are vulnerable to harsh consequences, mainly in the form of lawsuits. Firework vendors and private citizens alike, all who can rightfully sell and use fireworks under the above statutes outside of areas considered hazardous, can make a strong case that what these municipalities are doing is illegal.
Furthermore, the State Legislature could also override ordinances and acts created by municipalities, making them null and void.
None of this is to say that current state law is perfect and that there is no need for change. The current circumstances of exacerbated fires due to increased dry foliage is something that should be addressed, potentially in an emergency legislative session. However, in order to implement this change, the issue needs to be solved through open lines of communication between city and state governments rather than attempting to override current state law.
This can be an incredibly frustrating prospect, as the state legislature is not meeting during this part of the year, and they have not seen fit to call a special session to address the issue.
While there’s no quick fix to the current problem, we can learn from this emergency and be more prepared to deal with such tough issues in the future. This situation has taught us that effective governance requires collaboration, understanding, and communication between local and state governments.
If changes need to be implemented to fit the needs of local communities, that needs to be communicated to the Legislature who should, in response, work to find a compromise. Delegating responsibility to local governments, which leaves them confused and vulnerable to lawsuits, is not a long-term solution.
This may seem unpalatable given present circumstances, but if long-lasting solutions can be obtained as a result, positive reform can be achieved without upending our rule of law.