Earthquake Rattles Several States in the Southeast
At a Glance
- A quarter of the Lower 48 is in drought this Fourth of July holiday.
- Dry conditions will increase the danger of setting off fireworks in some areas.
- At the same time, COVID-19 has led to nearly 16,000 professional fireworks displays being canceled.
Across the nation, worries about spreading COVID-19 have led to hundreds of Independence Day fireworks celebrations being canceled. For those that will go on, especially in the Plains and the West, officials are dealing with another concern: drought and dry conditions.
Extra caution with fireworks, as well as with campfires and grills, may be needed this Fourth of July because of drought conditions that remain in place in parts of the United States.
(MORE: Fourth of July Weekend Forecast)
A quarter of the Lower 48 is in drought and 45% of the contiguous U.S. is experiencing at least abnormally dry conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. The percentage of the Lower 48 that is abnormally dry or in drought has about doubled since early March.
Fire concerns, thanks to very low relative humidity and hot temperatures, will be elevated in parts of Nevada, Utah and northeastern California this Fourth of July, increasing concerns there.
Dry conditions will make many areas from parts of the Plains into the Great Basin, Northern California and Northwest the worst locations to use fireworks this holiday weekend because of the threat of starting fires.
That's why many cities and towns are pleading with people to leave the fireworks displays to professionals. More than 19,500 fires were started by fireworks in 2018, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Brush, grass or forest fires accounted for three of every five (59%) fireworks fires.
Most of those fires are caused by individuals using consumer fireworks, like bottle rockets and sparklers, according to Gregg Smith, safety program manager for the American Pyrotechnics Association trade group.
“Very rarely do we start fires with public displays,” he told weather.com.
Exhibitors are always aware of conditions but the awareness is heightened in an area experiencing drought, he said.
“We are constantly watching the U.S. Drought Monitor,” Smith said.
Each display has to meet local rules and state regulations. A state fire marshal or an official with a state’s department of forestry or natural resources often has final say.
A key to avoiding a fire is knowing what ground-level combustibles are around.
“Where is the hot debris going to fall?” Smith said. “We plan for that.”
Still, it may be difficult to find a professional show this Independence Day weekend, Smith said. Drought is the latest blow to an industry that has watched revenues plunge 70% to 90% this year because of the coronavirus, he told weather.com.
“We had scheduled 16,000 shows for this weekend and that has dropped to less than 300,” he said.
One display company was told Thursday morning that seven shows had been canceled in Arizona, which has seen a record spike in new coronavirus cases.
And the numbers don’t include the thousands of displays that would have been put on at major sporting events like professional baseball, hockey and football.
Two of the largest remaining exhibitions for the holiday weekend will be the “Salute to America” celebration on the National Mall in Washington on Saturday and the first fireworks display at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota since 2009.
President Donald Trump has said he will attend the Mount Rushmore event, which is Friday. Displays were canceled after 2009 after a pine beetle infestation devastated the area's ponderosa pines and created a fire danger. A former fire management officer for Mount Rushmore and six other national parks in the region recently said the abnormally dry conditions there now make Friday's fireworks exhibition too risky.
Many of the remaining Independence Day exhibitions will be in smaller cities and towns or at private places like country clubs, Smith said.
Because so many shows have been canceled, Smith said, businesses that sell fireworks to the public have seen a big jump in sales. And that worries officials.
A Few Areas of Concern
Soil moisture is below the 10th percentile in much of the Great Basin and Northern California, meaning the ground is very dry.
Sacramento is experiencing a precipitation deficit of more than 7 inches for the first half of the year. In addition, a prolonged heat wave impacted the region in June and downtown Sacramento has already recorded 11 days with highs of at least 100 degrees so far this year.
Fireworks lovers in the city haven't waited for the holiday weekend to begin shooting off their ill-gotten goodies. Sacramento allows the use of "Safe and Sane” fireworks, those that do not fly or explode, from noon June 28 through midnight on July 4, but the booms started last week.
“We definitely have seen a large number of illegal fireworks being used, but that’s pretty standard for this time of year,” Capt. Keith Wade, a spokesman for the Sacramento Fire Department, told the Sacramento Bee.
“Things are hot, the grass is dry and the grass has grown really, really tall this year,” Wade said.
Exceptional drought, the highest drought category, has developed in a small area of southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas. Below-average rainfall, heat, low humidity and strong winds have exacerbated drought conditions there, as well as in western Texas and Oklahoma.
Any type of firework that leaves the ground, such as bottle rockets or roman candles, is illegal in Colorado already, according to KUSA. Personal fireworks of any kind are prohibited in many areas that are under fire restrictions.
For example, Colorado Springs and surrounding El Paso County are under a fire ban, making it illegal to own and use fireworks, KXRM reported.
“We’ve had a little bit of rain over the past week, but it has not been enough to really low the fire danger. If you look around town, all the native grasses are starting to dry out, some of the trees are struggling, which means that those have very low fuel moisture. And so, they are ripe for ignition. It doesn’t take much for an accident to take place,” Kris Cooper, deputy fire marshal with the Colorado Springs Fire Department, told KXRM.
Colorado Springs city leaders are asking residents to stay on their front porches and enjoy professional fireworks being launched in 10 locations around the city.
In neighboring New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order urging municipalities to suspend the sale of commercial fireworks because of drought concerns.
"Both COVID-19 and New Mexico's current drought conditions obviously play into our concern with any locality hosting a mass fireworks event," Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor's press secretary, told weather.com.
In Texas' El Paso County, a county judge banned the use and sale of fireworks beginning at noon Friday because of the drought, KFOX reported. Texas law allows counties to ban fireworks only after a drought index has reached a certain level.
However, it's not just areas of the Plains and West that have drought concerns. Parts of Minnesota, northern New York and New England are also in drought. Recent rainfall has improved conditions in portions of those regions, but precipitation totals in many areas are still below average for the month and year. Concord, New Hampshire, for example, has received more than 4 inches less precipitation than average year-to-date.
Precipitation will be limited through the holiday weekend across much of the contiguous United States. The greatest chance for rainfall will be in parts of the South, especially near the Gulf Coast.
The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.