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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Brand new bang: Lake Tahoe resort scraps July 4 fireworks for drones | Climate crisis in the American west

Lake Tahoe’s north shore is breaking with tradition and will replace its Fourth of July fireworks celebration with a colorful light display of an entirely different nature.

The tourist town on the Nevada side of the storied lake will offer a night-time drone light show, a display officials at the Incline Village Crystal Bay visitors bureau said carries less danger in a parched landscape primed to burn.

“I enjoy fireworks and always have,” said Andy Chapman, president and CEO of the bureau. “But we started thinking – are pyrotechnic fireworks really sustainable moving forward?”

Pyrotechnics have always posed a severe fire risk, even before conditions in the American west intensified amid the climate emergency. An average of 18,500 fires are started each year on the Fourth of July, according to the National Fire Protection Association. But with temperatures rising, spurring aridification that turns vegetation to tinder, the annual pastime has grown even more dangerous.

Last year, as the region baked in an extreme heatwave, more than 150 fire scientists pressed residents across the west to forgo fireworks. “We are gravely concerned about the potential for humans to accidentally start fires – from fireworks and other activities – by adding ignitions to this combination of historic drought, heat, and dry vegetation,” they wrote in a public letter. “This will be critical for a safe Independence Day holiday, good practice for the rest of the fire season, and one way we can adapt to more safely live in increasingly flammable landscapes.”

In the Lake Tahoe region, the onslaught of the Caldor fire last autumn – which tore through the rugged Sierra Nevada, destroying mountain towns and forcing thousands to flee as it laid siege on Tahoe – is still fresh in the minds of many. But the decision to replace the annual fireworks show, Chapman said, was in the works long before.

An empty ski lift is seen as a raging wildfire fills the area with smoke and turns everything orange.
Scenes during last year’s Caldor fire inferno, which shook the region. Photograph: Noah Berger/AP

In addition to the fire risk they pose, the festive detonations cause other environmental harms, spiking pollution in air and water and causing distress to animals and sensitive communities alike. After back-to-back forced cancellations in the annual celebrations caused by the Covid crisis, the bureau came to the conclusion that this was a good time to try something new.

Tahoe officials aren’t alone. “We are seeing a lot more destinations starting to think about and move in this direction now, especially out west,” Chapman said.

Across the north shore of Tahoe other communities have followed suit. The southern part of the lake will still feature a fireworks show, but sentiment in other locales is starting to shift.

From Texas to Colorado, in California towns and Arizona cities, summer traditions are being skirted as fireworks are being phased out for safer options. Some shows have been outright canceled without replacements.

As the climate warms and landscapes dry out across the west, changes like these may become more permanent as cities and towns try to adapt to the rising risks. The hot summer and autumn months that lie ahead already pose a grim promise – the stage is set for ignitions to turn into infernos.

A picturesque landscape shows Lake Tahoe with its snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Some of Lake Tahoe’s mountain towns were destroyed in the Caldor fire last fall. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Fueled largely by a series of devastating blazes that erupted across the south-west this spring, more than 3.6m acres have already been charred across the US this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center – outpacing every year in the last decade and eclipsing the 10-year average by nearly 140%. Thousands of daily heat records have been broken this year, and 66% of the American west has been classified in severe drought.

“Given the increased risk of fire danger occurring earlier and earlier, I would imagine you might expect to have fewer and fewer opportunities to have Fourth of July fireworks,” said climate scientist Dr Craig Clements, the director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University.

Data collected across California sites show fuel moisture – a measurement of how parched plants are – is dangerously low. “It is very high fire danger across many parts of California,” he said. “It blows my mind that people are lighting off fireworks anywhere in California.”

Clements said he has been concerned over fireworks for more than two decades. But now, the risks are mounting and more are calling for new ways to celebrate.

Still, firework show cancellations don’t necessarily mean the night will be without incident. Unsanctioned fireworks, especially in untrained hands, are the most dangerous, experts say. As cities cancel their fireworks shows, there are fears individuals may be more inclined to light them.

In 2020, when the pandemic shut down public celebrations, fireworks-caused deaths and injuries spiked. Last year in Las Vegas the surge in 911 calls on the Fourth of July crashed the city’s system. Roughly 100 grass fires ignited in the Bay Area in 2020 on Independence Day, along with 135 fires in Fresno, and 400 in and around Los Angeles.

In Incline Village, there’s hope that the drone light show will be enough of a spectacle to satisfy the crowds. Two hundred drones will glide through the night sky, creating shapes and swaying to music, and Chapman said they plan to learn a lot from their first go at a safer way to celebrate.

“Like anything you do these days, you will have folks who support it and folks who don’t think it is a good idea,” he said. There have already been some complaints from residents who feel their traditions are being taken from them.

“What we say is there are innovative, new and forward-thinking ways to celebrate this holiday and create new traditions,” Chapman said. “I encourage those who are on the fence or hesitant to give it a chance. See what they look like. Come experience it with us – and then help us make it better in the future.”

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