July Fourth fire in Centerfield should be a wakeup call for whole county
A fire in Centerfield on the Fourth of July that sent a resident to the hospital with smoke inhalation should be a wakeup call for towns and residents throughout the county.
Utah law permits fireworks on four days around the Fourth of July—July 2, 3, 4 and 5—and four days near the 24th—July 22, 23, 24 and 25. However, the state fireworks law gives cities the right to pass their own fireworks ordinances. If they do, the municipal ordinances supersede state law.
On the night of July 4, weather conditions for fireworks were terrible. The National Weather Service had issued a red-flag warning, which means high temperatures, low humidity and high winds; in other words, a recipe for fire.
Then there were the weeds. Don Rogers, a Centerfield resident on 100 West near the center of the city, told the city council at its July meeting that weeds in two fields near his home were 2-3-feet high. A city ordinance requires weeds to be cut down. But these weeds had not been.
“Unfortunately, this year we had a really wet spring, and I can tell you we probably have more weeds than in the past in I don’t know how long,” Centerfield Mayor Thomas Sorensen told the city council. “And then it got dry really, really fast.”
Worst of all, winds in Central Utah were as high as 40 mph. Setting off fireworks with winds that high was “complete insanity,” Mayor Sorensen said. He and at least one councilman had purchased fireworks for the Fourth, but did not use them.
But someone did. Sparks or embers ignited weeds in one of the fields. In no time, the flames were high enough to be seen in many areas of town. It took four fire trucks, including one that came south from Sterling, and more than a dozen firefighters to put the fire out.
The resident who was injured was trying to save a load of hay. The hay was about the only loss. But Don Rogers’ wife, Susan, said if winds had shifted “one iota” while the fire was burning, her garage and greenhouse would have been destroyed.
That brought Sorensen and the city council to the question of what to do in the future. “If done correctly,” the mayor said, “[fireworks] can be quite entertaining and quite safe. I would hate to punish all the residents who do it responsibly for one person who didn’t. I would hope that if you asked that one person, he would say, ‘Yeah, that was pretty stupid. I probably shouldn’t have set those fireworks off that night.’”
The mayor and Chief Jed Hansen of the Gunnison Valley Fire Department, who was at the meeting, said fireworks bans are difficult to enforce and public education is a better approach. (Public education, in fact, is the main reason for this editorial.)
Chief Hansen made an important point: If you cause a fire, and the fire causes damage, even if setting the fire was legal, you can be held financially liable for the damage. That would certainly apply to fireworks.
However, Val Jean Hansen, a former mayor who was in the audience, suggested that if fire danger is so extreme that city officials know fireworks should not be used, the city should ban them.
“I’ve seen cities come in the day before and say, ‘We have a moratorium on fireworks, citywide, right now,’” he said. “It goes in the newspaper, it goes on the radio, it goes on TV. The word gets spread.” Most people comply even though a town can’t guarantee perfect compliance.
The former mayor suggested the city could take the position that under certain conditions, “red-flag warning being one of them,” it automatically imposes a moratorium. That policy could be enacted as an ordinance.
We believe fireworks should continue to be legal in Sanpete County on a limited number of days of the year, so long as it is safe to use them on those days. We believe the best approach to preventing fires from fireworks is a combination of education, and in specified situations, municipal fireworks moratoria. We recommend that our local towns adopt ordinances to implement such an approach.