SALT LAKE CITY — Flanked by dozens of firefighters, city leaders and some state lawmakers, Governor Spencer Cox pleaded with Utahns to not use personal fireworks this year in the face of potentially catastrophic wildfires.
"If I could issue a ban on personal fireworks, I would," the governor said at a news conference Wednesday. "But state law does not allow me to do that. So I’m asking you, I’m imploring each of you to do the right thing: And the right thing this year is to put your personal fireworks away."
Utah's ongoing drought emergency has created the potential for massive wildfires. Conditions are such that no place is safe from it, even in heavily urban areas. More firefighters will be working this weekend, but fire chiefs are concerned it's not enough.
"Any ignition around your home has the potential to spread much faster than maybe you’ve seen before," said Unified Fire Authority Chief Dan Peterson.
Fire chiefs stood and asked Utahns to abandon personal fireworks displays on the Fourth of July and instead watch the professional shows, which are licensed and monitored by firefighters.
"We want you to enjoy the Fourth. We want you to enjoy the 24th. We just don’t want the risk that our current weather and fire conditions are presenting," Peterson said.
Some cities have enacted all-out bans of personal fireworks this year. Others have issued severe restrictions. There's disagreement in the interpretation of Utah fireworks law over whether cities do have the ability to enact total bans.
Sandy City Council member Zach Robinson said 95% of residents surveyed said they supported additional restrictions in drought years.
"Our residents are wanting that and unfortunately, we can’t do an all-out ban because the way the state code is written," he told FOX 13 on Wednesday.
Gov. Cox has backed the cities that are enacting bans and called on the legislature to fix the law to give cities clearer powers. Lawmakers have told FOX 13 they are planning to take it up when they meet in January.
"I'm getting more phone calls about this topic than I’ve had about political topics," said Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City.
She said she would support plans to give local governments more power to enact bans in drought conditions. However, she wasn't sure if it should go so far as to grant the governor the power to enact all-out bans in extreme drought areas, like Gov. Cox has suggested.
"Under states of emergency with drought on top of temperatures like this? I think it’s completely reasonable for cities to have the authority to ban," Rep. Weight said.
Meanwhile, mayors are pleading with residents to skip fireworks because of the fire risk.
"We're asking everyone to come together and be responsible this year," said Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell, whose city banned fireworks.
Chief Peterson said there will be more emphasis on watching for fireworks violations in restricted areas. Penalties include fines up to $1,000 and authorities have vowed to be more aggressive about going after residents for wildfire suppression costs. Utah law also allows neighbors to sue for damages incurred by a human-caused fire.
Utah's Department of Natural Resources confirmed to FOX 13 it has hired a lawyer specifically to recover wildfire suppression costs, which can be millions of dollars per fire. That person starts their new job on Wednesday.
Gov. Cox hoped it would not come to that, if people would just not use personal fireworks.
"Any firework that’s not lit is a potential fire that doesn’t happen. We’ll take the wins we can get there. My hope is those who are insistent on lighting off fireworks will be safer this year," he said.