SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers recently passed a law reducing the number of days fireworks are legal, but that’s not enough for one Cottonwood Heights resident whose home was severely damaged in a fire last Fourth of July.
Dave Schoeneck led a two-fold protest outside the Capitol Monday: against "negligent" Utah fireworks laws and against private landowners not taking responsibility for fire hazards on their lands. He and a handful of protesters dressed in all black and brought a coffin to display to represent the lives that could have been lost during the fire.
"We are in a desert climate and any aerial fireworks being shot off is negligent," Schoeneck said. "You’re putting people’s lives and homes in danger."
Schoeneck’s focus is on aerial fireworks.
"If they can shoot them off, and they’re not a professional, they can do the damage that was done to our home," Schoeneck said.
Schoeneck’s home caught fire July 4, 2017, after a neighbor’s aerial fireworks started a fire in a field next door. The 55-acre field is owned by the Security National Financial Institution, and Schoeneck said the company did not take responsibility for the fire hazards the property contains, including scrub oak, tall grass and bushes.
Security National Financial Institution did not respond to a request for comment.
On the night of the Fourth of July, crews responded to fires in Cottonwood Heights and Sugar House that they believe were started by fireworks.
"The fireman told my wife, he would have pulled his men back if they had arrived 20 seconds later," Schoeneck said. "The fire engulfing our house was going to hit the gas line. Our house not only would have burned; it would have exploded."
Schoeneck said lawmakers’ move to reduce the number of days fireworks can be used wasn’t enough to address the dangers aerial fireworks present in Utah’s dry desert climate.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, who sponsored the bill shortening fireworks season, noted his law makes it easier for officials to enforce fireworks laws, increases fines, gives local governments greater flexibility on where they can ban fireworks and makes maps of restricted areas more accessible to residents.
"Under the prior law, if someone was in a restricted area discharging fireworks, (law officials) had to prove they were negligently discharging to cause damage," Dunnigan said. "We removed those requirements and basically said if you’re in a restricted area discharging fireworks, you’re at fault."
An image sitting on a coffin during a protest in which Dave Schoeneck, Jr., of Cottonwood Heights, spoke to media while protesting what he says are negligent fireworks laws and private landowners who do not maintain their lands in a way that prevents the lands from being a “fire hazard,” on Monday, May 14, 2018, at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. Schoeneck said the coffin represents those who could die because of the issue. (Photo: Jacob Wiegand, KSL)
Dunnigan said he assembled a group composed of legislators and law enforcement personnel when he was putting the bill together to address the fire hazards Utah experienced during its dry summer last year.
"We had the group submit their proposed changes," Dunnigan said. "What we wanted to do as a group was find a point where people still wanted to celebrate the founding of our country, and yet not extend it as long as it has been, which we think will reduce the air pollution and noise and fire hazards."
Dunnigan said when he got a group of fire officials together, everybody seemed to have different concerns — some were concerned about aerials, but others thought aerials didn’t cause as much damage as some forms of ground fireworks.
Dunnigan was also the sponsor of the bill in 2011 that made it legal to buy and discharge aerials in Utah.