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First Responders Bracing For Higher Fire Risk On Pioneer Day

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – With a heat advisory in effect Monday for the Salt Lake and Tooele valleys, as well as along the Wasatch Front, Utahns are bracing for the possibility of triple digit heat.

Meanwhile, first responders are bracing for higher fire risk – especially because fireworks are legal across the state for the first day ahead of this year’s Pioneer Day holiday.

So long as you live in a neighborhood without year-round restrictions, fireworks are legal in Utah July 22 – 25.

Although the July 24 holiday is forecasted to be hot and dry, adding fireworks into the mix any Summer day in Utah can mean firefighters transition their role into “firework responders,” inundated with calls.

Fire agencies across Utah prepare for the increase most of the month, but particularly for the July 4 and July 24 celebrations.

“Historically, by midnight, and through the night on the Fourth and the 24th, we end up to where these guys (firefighters) won’t be in-house (at the fire station) for hours. They go from one fire to the next, to the next,” Matthew McFarland, a spokesman for the Unified Fire Authority, told KSL Investigator Brittany Glas. “Between all the fire agencies in the valley, someone’s going on a firework call almost every day in July.”

The Unified Fire Authority’s response area is split up into four battalions. UFA added an extra fire apparatus in each of those battalions for the July 4 holiday, which means extra staffing and extra equipment are also necessary.

“The 24th is coming up, we’re going to sell more fireworks, and even though they’re not legal to use, we all know that our neighbors are setting them off. We hear them for the entire month. That poses a really big threat, especially if people aren’t using them wisely,” he said.

McFarland said preventable fires like those caused by fireworks put a strain on valuable resources.

“This is all by choice. This isn’t lightning strikes. These aren’t even camp fires, or anything like that. These are people choosing to recreate with fire, and it’s entertaining. I get it, but it’s a big risk when you choose to play with fireworks. So, you got to do it responsibly.”


Click the image below for an interactive map of fireworks restrictions:


McFarland also said when Utah legalized aerial fireworks in 2011, the fire risk increased dramatically.

“When you just have something on the ground, you’re way more in control of it, you’re way more aware of what it’s doing when it’s on fire. You throw aerials in, there’s a lot of unknowns. You can’t control them once they’re up and flying, and they can land anywhere. And, depending on those wind patterns, they could really cause some issues,” he said.


Data shows an increase in July fires after aerials became legal in Utah


According to data obtained by KSL Investigators through an open records request with the Utah State Fire Marshal’s Office, in the months of July alone from 2006 through 2018, there have been 1,956 total fires caused by fireworks in the state.

The data was reported as of 7/2/2019 in the National Fire Incident Reporting System. The state office says it’s important to remember not all fire departments have reported and incidents can be updated and entered into NFIRS at any time. In all reality, the numbers could be higher than reported to date.

In the years since aerial fireworks were legalized in Utah in 2011, the increasing trend of fires caused by fireworks is undeniable. July 2012 alone recorded 396 fireworks-caused fires.

The only significant decline in the data is years it rained on July 4 – in 2013, primarily, and again in 2015 when St. George in Washington County saw 0.72 inches of precipitation.

Penalizing & Deterring Fireworks Violations

In July 2018, firefighters responded to a fire caused by fireworks every day they were legal, as well as on 11 additional days they weren’t. Altogether, fire crews across Utah battled fireworks-caused fires 19 of the 31 days that month.

Despite the number of illegal fireworks-caused fires, KSL Investigators have uncovered that there’s little to nothing being done to penalize violators. We reached out to fire agencies in every major metropolitan area in the state and learned that citations really aren’t being issued — at least that was largely the case in 2018.

Of the fire departments across Utah we surveyed, those that track citations issued for fireworks violations told KSL they had issued no citations. In many cases, we were told law enforcement can play a role in that process.

“Generally, the guys in the station don’t write citations,” McFarland said. “But, we have a really close working relationship with the police in all of our communities, and they’re more than happy to come out there. If we recommend it, they will absolutely write that citation and we do that fairly regularly.”

He added, “If they’re unaware, we’re going to be nice about it. We’re not out to be jerks. We know people want to have fun during the holidays. But, if there’s irresponsible behavior going on, and they’re not willing to fix it, then we’ll happily get police out there and they support us in that.”

Unified Fire says it does have firefighters who are sworn police officers, as well.

July 4, 2019: KSL Investigators ride along with Unified Fire Authority

A view from the east bench shows the number of Utahns igniting the sky in their neighborhoods this Independence Day holiday, before the professional shows even got started. On the same night, the Unified Fire Authority was called out to 21 fire-related incidents with 32 of their units.

Thanks to some rain and cooler temperatures this July fourth, the holiday was relatively quiet – the exception to the trend. Firefighters across the valley doused a number of dumpster fires including one in Midvale and another in West Jordan. Both may have been started by fireworks that weren’t properly disposed.

Things could have been so much worse and they have been in the past.

It’s been more than two years since the Buckley family, of Orem, lost much of their home due to a fireworks-caused fire.

“There were a lot of fireworks going off in our neighborhood. A lot of aerials being lit that night,” Becky Buckley, said.

Jay Buckley, her husband, added, “It’s like we were in the center of a war zone.”

Around 11 p.m. on July 1, 2017, Jay Buckley was sitting in bed, reading. His wife was asleep next to him. One of his children was asleep in their room, too. The other was still out with friends.

“I smelled some very strong smoke. I asked my wife if all of the windows were shut. She said they were, so I went to investigate. I went outside, climbed up on my swing, saw the flames shooting off my roof, came in and called 911,” Jay recalled. “Then I got my wife and child, and we went outside and watched our house burn down.”

“I was just really in shock watching it,” Becky added. “It was just a panic and a shock and disbelief, and grateful that, of course, we were safe.”

That night was also the first legal day Utahns could light fireworks that year. One of the Buckley’s neighbors did just that. Turns out, a bottle rocket firework landed on their roof.

“The fire trucks came pretty quickly, but they were coming from another brush fire and so they were out of water. It took them a little while to get hooked up to a hydrant and get everything situated, and by that time, the fire had punched through the roof. Once it’s inside the rafters, [the fire] spreads quickly all the way around,” Jay explained. “By the time an hour or two had elapsed, it looked like a bomb had gone off in the house. Everything was black, charred, smoky.”

Although it took seven months, $30,000 out of pocket and a $300,000 insurance claim to rebuild their house, the Buckley family did.

“It was a big claim for just a few minutes of carelessness,” Jay said.

“It’s our home. It’s our neighborhood. It’s our people. It’s where we belong,” Becky added. “You just keep moving forward, one day at a time.”

The Buckley family believes there’s something to be said about rebuilding after tragedy. And, instead of focusing on what they almost lost, the family is looking to those who saved what they could – the firefighters.

“They risk their lives every day, which is a real service. But we shouldn’t take advantage of that by putting them in harm’s way,” Jay said.


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