News24

Wildfire fears block July 4 displays

2012-06-30 21:00

Denver - Fears of drought and wildfires are snuffing out some Independence Day festivities in the US this year.

From Utah to Indiana, the image of a stray rocket igniting tinder-dry brush is causing state and local governments to call off July 4 fireworks displays, traditionally their biggest of the year. They're also warning residents not to use fireworks or sparklers in their backyards.

The worry is especially acute in the West, where crews are already battling out-of-control blazes in several states, including one in Colorado that forced 30 000 evacuations this week and burned more than 350 homes. Parts of the Midwest are affected, too, after weeks without significant rain.

"We usually have a fireworks barge and a huge gala that attracts thousands of people," said Bill Appleby of the Grand Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which represents the lakeside resort town in the Rocky Mountains. "We just can't risk an errant ember."

Drought

Last year, about a third of the US was in drought. Nearly three-quarters is this year, according to the latest US Drought Monitor map, a weekly analysis of dryness across the nation.

Fires have burned more than 728 000 hectares this year in the US, and much of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have been under warnings for extreme fire danger.

In Colorado, firefighters say they don't have the time or resources to stand watch over public events. At least nine public fireworks displays have been called off.

In Montana, Governor Brian Schweitzer is urging people not to set off their own fireworks.

Officials have cancelled displays or issued warnings restricting private fireworks in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Utah and Wisconsin.

Real danger

The danger is real: Fireworks were blamed for more than 15 500 fires and $36m in property damage in 2010, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Paul Forman, who owns Independence Fireworks and Forman Blasters Pyrotechnics in Indiana, said he understands the concerns, but his business has been devastated. He said his business had dropped from about 50 customers a day to a total of 11.

Leaders of the fireworks industry, which brought in nearly $1bn in sales nationally in 2011, question whether the bans are legal. Steve Graves, executive director of the Indiana Fireworks Association, said people should be given credit for common sense.

But "we should all be able to agree that preventing fires that could devastate our communities is a priority that transcends politics," said New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. More than half of the state's 33 counties and its largest cities have already imposed restrictions.