The Fourth of July ushers in the dog days of summer. This is great for backyard grilling and swimming pool outings, but also aligns well with some of the starker impacts of climate change — heatwaves, drought, and wildfires.
Setting off fireworks, a treasured Independence Day ritual, happens to be an extreme liability when it comes to sparking an unwanted burn. But with over 15,000 official displays and hundreds of thousands of more independent efforts, fireworks also provide cheap thrills and economic gains to communities across the country.
While the drought-ridden West is taking extra precaution to prevent fires, the fireworks business is booming nationally. This, according to Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), the leading trade association of the fireworks industry.
“Sales of fireworks have dramatically increased over the last decade,” Heckman told ThinkProgress. “In recent years we actually saw a relaxation of fireworks restrictions due to the slow economy. Cities and towns got tired of losing tax revenue.”
The APA predicts sales of consumer fireworks will exceed $675 million in 2014, an all-time record — one helped along by the holiday falling on a Friday.
Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York have banned all public access to fireworks. Other states have their own guidelines, with California being one of the strictest. The only fireworks legally permitted in the state are ones that don’t launch into the air or explode, otherwise referred to as “safe and sane” fireworks. However, just because they are safe and sane doesn’t mean everyone will find them fun and desirable. More than 175 tons of illegal fireworks have been confiscated in California so far this year, a perennial problem made worse by the especially tinderbox-like conditions.
“People are going to use fireworks on the Fourth of July whether they’re legal or not,” said Heckman. “They will cross state or county lines to get them. This is an American tradition — people want to celebrate their independence with consumer fireworks. We just hope Mother Nature cooperates on the Fourth of July.”
The drought of 2012 really put a damper on fireworks sales, but so far this year has been better for the industry. However with much of the Western United States caught up in an enduring drought — especially the Southwest between Texas and California — tamping down fireworks displays has become the new normal in many places.
Drought and heat aren’t the only weather conditions impacting the sale and use of fireworks. Hurricanes and other extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change can deter people from going all out in their Fourth of July displays. With the first hurricane of the season, Hurricane Arthur, bearing down on the east coast tourism plans could be upended. Not only may fireworks go un-purchased and unused, but local businesses expecting a weekend boom may have to settle for something less memorable.
Differing Approaches In The West
In Texas, El Paso County has banned the purchase, use, and possession of fireworks by residents for the fourth consecutive year. Professional displays put on by cities are not banned as frequently as they generally have supervision by firefighters and are put on by professional pyrotechnicians. Texas has banned public fireworks displays recently — In 2011, Austin cancelled fireworks for the first time in 35 years due to a historic drought gripping the state.
Just across the border in New Mexico, Doña Ana County has banned the use of all fireworks within areas that are covered wholly or in part by timber, brush or native grass. Fireworks can only be used in paved or barren areas with readily accessible water.
Dan Ware, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division, said that nearly 90 percent of the 231 fires reported on state and private land so far this year have been caused by people. There are fireworks bans and restrictions in remote and urban areas throughout the state and violations in parts of the state could result in jail time and fines, with authorities implementing a zero tolerance policy.
Fireworks account for two out of five of all reported fires on July Fourth according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and in 2011 fireworks caused an estimated 17,800 reported fires.
After one of the driest winters on record, all of California is currently in severe drought with most of the state experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Having already responded to over 2,500 wildland fires this season, about 55 percent higher than an average year, fireworks bans are in place across the state, especially in state forests.
On top of lower-than-average rainfall for consecutive years, summers in the Southwest are also heating up due to climate change — and at a rate faster than the rest of the country. According to a recent Associated Press analysis, the average Arizona summer is now 2.4 degrees warmer than in 1984, giving it the fourth fastest summertime increase among the lower 48 states. In New Mexico summer is 3.4 degrees hotter. Texas summers are 2.8 degrees hotter.
How To Handle Such A Hot Issue
Governors in the Southwest are approaching the issue of weather and risk versus ritual and economy in different ways. In New Mexico, Gov. Susanna Martinez is urging leaders around the state to consider limiting or banning fireworks even after the legislature failed to pass a law to give cities and counties more authority to ban fireworks when fire danger is high. Last year Gov. Martinez banned all campfires and fireworks on state land during a more severe drought over the July Fourth holiday.
In Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer recently signed a bill requiring the highly populated Maricopa and Pima counties to allow the sale and use of fireworks for several weeks around the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve. In a compromise, the bill also allows the 13 other more rural countries across the state to impose their own ban restrictions. Under the formal law, cities and towns across the state had to allow fireworks for just a few days during those two holidays.
“It does not make sense that a state that is so dry, that has had so many catastrophic fires in last decade, would want more flammable materials,” Dale Wiebusch, legislative associate for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, told ThinkProgress.
Wiebusch’s organization, a member-based group representing over 90 cities and towns in Arizona opposed the bill because the overall impact will create more opportunities for fire. The Arizona Fire District Association and the the County Supervisors Association also opposed the bill. Phantom Fireworks, a major fireworks wholesaler based in Youngstown, Ohio, was in favor of it.
Wiebusch said lobbyists from the fireworks industry have been pressuring the Legislature to pass a similar bill for years. Fireworks were illegal in Arizona until 2010 when Gov. Brewer signed a bill that legalized sparklers and fireworks that don’t explode or go into the air. Previous governors had vetoed several versions of that bill in the 1990s, and Gov. Brewer cited the threat of wildfires in vetoing a similar 2009 version.
“I think the rural legislatures thought their districts would have more control with this compromise,” said Wiebusch. “What they didn’t take into account was that people can still drive 90 minutes or whatever to Phoenix, buy fireworks, and bring them back.”
Wiebusch said that late June and early July are the high fire-danger times in Arizona, before monsoon season kicks in with regular afternoon showers. Having been at his job for eight years, he said he’s seen an uptick in fireworks displays being cancelled due to fire hazard, saying “we’ve been in drought for over a decade, we’re already a dry state, now we’re even drier.”