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Scientists Say Fireworks And Fire Season Don’t Mix

A plume of grey smoke rises from a mountainside that's glowing orange from a fire spreading across mountains at dusk.

More than 150 scientists signed onto a letterurging people in the Western U.S. to avoid fireworks this Independence Day.

“The July 4th weekend in the United States this year will be like no other we’ve experienced in the nation’s history,” they wrote. “The extreme heat impacting the northwestern United States and Canada this week comes on top of an already record-setting drought across much of western North America.”

Fuel sources, like vegetation, are the driest we’ve ever recorded in some areas. Philip Higuera, a fire ecology professor at the University of Montana, said a record-breaking heat wave makes things worse, and having the two issues converge on July 4th — a day notorious for fires near homes — could cause major problems.

The image is of a graph, which shows the number of fires on each day of the year which were added up between 1992 and 2015. At the beginning of the year, there's about 100 daily fires. But into the summer things start climbing up to around 400, before things spike dramatically up to more than 1,100 fires on July 4th. Shortly after, things return to 400 and steadily decline back to less than 100 by the end of the year.
The Conversation
Mietkiewicz et al, 2020

“A lot of fires are beneficial and do a lot of things that are helpful for us,” he said. “But the fires that are clearly bad are the ones that humans start near homes.”

More than 95% of wildfires that threaten homes are human-caused.

But the dangers likely won’t go away next year. Higuera suggests finding new holiday traditions for Independence Day well into the future.

“This is not like the 4th of July of your youth,” he said. “Because of climate change, our conditions are getting warmer and drier.”

University of Montana associate professor Alex Metcalf agreed. He said the West is already starting to pivot away from fireworks in the summer, and we should keep heading that direction.

“There are lots of efforts around the West to rethink how we celebrate this holiday,” he said. “Doing bans, suspending firework shows. Coming up with all sorts of different creative ways to celebrate that don’t start fires.”

Both Higuera and Metcalf wrote about their concerns in The Conversation.

CORRECTION: The previous version of this story inadvertently switched quotes from Higuera and Metcalf. They are now attributed correctly. We regret the error.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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