For decades, Colorado mountain towns have celebrated the birth of the nation with displays worthy of postcards: colorful explosions in the night sky, illuminating the rugged grandeur.
Those pictures might be destined for scrapbooks or wherever else dusty memories are kept.
Manitou Springs isn’t alone in calling off its Fourth of July fireworks for a second consecutive year, despite the winter and spring moisture that has seemingly flipped the script after a drought-stricken 2018. But the fire chief’s point to city council was straightforward: The show isn’t worth the risk of fire on the ground.
And that might be the prevailing message for Independence Days to come, Manitou Mayor Ken Jaray said. “This very well may be the new normal for us.”
So it appears in Breckenridge, too.
“This current council has zero plans to do fireworks again,” Mayor Eric Mamula said.
The town’s choice to nix its display was followed with nearby Frisco cancelling the one over Dillon Reservoir. Leaders there worried about congested streets — would-be crowds of Breckenridge converging — and some have sounded less than confident in the water as a safeguard.
Across Summit County, officials look around at dry, beetle-kill forests and cringe. The Peak 2 and Buffalo Mountain fires in back-to-back years have been more than enough to quell interest in fireworks.
Go ahead, Mamula said: Call him and his counterparts unpatriotic.
“When you live in communities like the one we live in, the ones in the mountains with high fire danger on a fairly regular basis, it’s really time to reassess this thing. Is this really the way we want to celebrate the birth of the nation?”
Not in Aspen. Again, no bombs will burst from the ski resort’s iconic mountain, and Pitkin County sheriff Joe DiSalvo is glad for that. He’s glad it didn’t come down to the Aspen Chamber Resort Association approaching him with a permit to sign.
“I would’ve said no,” DiSalvo said. “We’re done playing with fireworks around here.”
He added: “It sounds like a bad pun, but we are playing with fire here. We have a red-hot state. Why tempt fate?”
In the past five years in Colorado, 21 fires caused by fireworks have been logged by the National Fire Incident Reporting System. If the annual average of four seems low, it doesn’t to cautious decision-makers.
And if the “below average” wildfire potential for the state in July sounds promising, think again, said Vaughn Jones, section chief for wildland management under the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.
“What we have to remember is, even in an ‘average’ year, we experience 4,000 to 5,000 wildfires annually, with the average fire burning well over 10,000 acres,” he said.
And while some see relief in Colorado’s new greenery, firefighters know better.
“Yeah, the precipitation we’ve had this winter and spring has brought us short-term relief,” Jones said. “But it definitely has resulted in a significant increase in the amount of grass and other surface fuel. As we go through summer and things begin to dry out, all that new fuel becomes available for fire.”
Colorado’s 20 biggest wildfires have all happened in the past two decades, with two from last year — the Spring Creek and 416 fires — ranking in the top five. And as temperatures rise and the wildland-urban interface continues to expand, the devastation is feared to worsen.
Perhaps understanding that will help people understand the reason for waiving Fourth of July fireworks, said David DelVecchio, chief of Cañon City’s fire department.
“I think as these fire seasons have continued year after year after year, people are becoming more cognizant of the fact that we do live in a different environment than we used to,” he said.
Cañon City opted not to put fireworks in the budget amid last year’s drought — explaining why there won’t be a show Thursday. But even if the money was there, DelVecchio said he would’ve hesitated to allow the spectacle, as he has almost every summer in his nine years as chief.
In 2011, he recalled his squad calling off the show halfway through after a tree went up in flames. Such small outbursts have been common in Manitou, Jaray said, “and the fire department is capable of dealing with that.”
But why should they have to? he asked.
“Anytime you see even a small fire anywhere, it’s pretty disconcerting.”