COOLIDGE — While many residents in Pinal County are eager to celebrate July Fourth in full this year after the pandemic, some believe that the weather is a hazard that must be contended with.
Hot, dry summers are nothing new to the area, but the confluence of record heat and devastating wildfires has led some local officials and departments to urge extra caution regarding fireworks this holiday season.
“People don’t realize that a lot of areas where they set off fireworks, we always have fires,” said Steve Kerber, fire chief for Regional Fire & Rescue Department in the Casa Grande area. “Unless they are ignited by the lawful ground-type effects on a paved street or in a large dirt area, it is bound to ignite something on fire. Sometimes those fires are small, but sometimes they can spread.”
About 20 wildfires have been burning throughout the state in recent days.
Kerber said areas that have more brush, dense grass or veins of growth along drainage areas and washes are the places most conducive to fires. Another risk is certain types of decorative bushes such as oleander bushes that many residents use in landscaping; the latter, Kerber warned, are actually toxic when burned.
“There’s still areas, pockets around the valley that are prime for out-of-control brushfire,” Kerber said. “And sometimes those extend towards structures and vehicles, which make matters worse.”
Last month, the county’s Office of Emergency Management offered a stark outlook on the potential fire risk, but the county supervisors voted to approve allowing fireworks displays anyway, with Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh having the lone dissenting view.
Emergency Management Director Chuck Kmet said his department would be providing regular support for fire departments and jurisdictions that need resources this Sunday, but that they are not a response entity. Kmet also noted that rain could significantly lower the threat of fireworks igniting or exacerbating a wildfire situation.
While Kmet said most city fireworks are run by professionals who use 200-by-200 feet of full clearance, the angle of lighting them as well as the wind could take them elsewhere. Kmet repeated his anecdote that he offered supervisors at their last meeting that in Tucson, “A” Mountain catches fire every year from fireworks, although the fires are very small and crews are ready to take care of them.
“We meet with the fire chiefs on a regular basis,” Kmet said. “These are seasoned guys and girls, they know it happens and we don’t have to tell them, ‘hey, it’s extra worse this year,' they are already prepared for things in general and even before fireworks are on anybody’s radar.”
Coolidge Fire Chief Mark Dillon said his department works closely with the fireworks company during the July 4 celebration, and gets regular updates from the national weather service.
Dillon was still hopeful that the area would receive some rain by this weekend, which would help mitigate fire concerns, although Dillon also said that his department reserves the right to cancel the fireworks show right up to the day of the event.
For the Coolidge show, Dillon said one fire truck remains at the site at Kenilworth Park, while another truck will be roving to respond nearby. Dillon said that while typically they have to put out some small fires, they've never had to contend with an out-of-control brushfire incident.
"We are like everybody else, we look forward to July 4," Dillon said, who mentioned that Christmas and New Years were actually bigger threats for residents setting off fireworks. "We are definitely more concerned this year because of the number of wildfires going on around the state. But we have a modicum of control over this and can have as much safety in place as possible. If we don't have fireworks it diminishes the celebration a bit."
Supervisor Cavanaugh, R-Coolidge, said that while he loves July Fourth, safety is his top concern and cities planning fireworks this year should have waited until there was significant precipitation to approve the displays.
“I still feel it is unwise to shoot fireworks of any kind,” Cavanaugh said. “One hundred thousand acres just burned in my district. The danger of fires is very real, and we just consumed enormous resources. Are we willing to risk another $100 million expenditure for another 100,000-acre fire?”
At least one municipality in Pinal County, Eloy, made the decision to push the fireworks show later in the evening due to excessive heat, although Program Supervisor Maggie Harris said that was more a matter of getting turnout for the festivities. Harris did note that her department was diligent in removing dead grass and cleaning up anything that would cause the ground to spark up in Eloy’s parks.
Although it is illegal for residents to launch aerial fireworks in Pinal County, there’s still the expectation that they will go off. James Fuller, a fireworks safety expert with TNT Fireworks, said that those planning to light fireworks should select a site with no dry or high grass, with a boundary between yards and sensitive habitat, and a flat concrete surface such as a cul-de-sac. Fuller also suggested having a water source nearby for worst-case scenarios.
“If you are in a very dry area you should make a responsible decision,” Fuller said. “Most people have the ability to travel and we believe that they can find a location in most communities that is thoughtful and responsible.”