A July 4 Without Fireworks? Wildfire-Plagued Cities Turn to Drones
Fireworks have become a wildfire liability in states and cities in the American West where persistent drought has turned lands into tinder. The alternative on July 4? In some places, drones.
That will be the case this year in Aspen, Colo., where the city is putting on a show with drones outfitted with LED lights instead of a fireworks display, said Debbie Braun, the president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
“This year we realized it was a low snow year, so we realized we were going to be at risk,” she said. “So we started innovating, and that is how we came upon the drone show.”
City organizers, inspired by the drone show during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, have arranged to put on a similar presentation Wednesday evening, using 50 drones with lights timed to music, staged from the surrounding mountains.
“It will be a fabulous alternative to fireworks, which we really think is going to be the new norm going forward,” Ms. Braun said.
While Ms. Braun would not say how much a fireworks show typically costs, she said officials expected to spend about the same amount on this year’s drone show.
Aspen got in contact with the Great Lakes Drone Company several months ago as it became clearer that conditions might preclude a fireworks display, said Reyna Price, the company’s sales and marketing director.
The city worked closely with the company, which is based in Watervliet, Mich., throughout the creative process, she said, hammering out details like the scale of the show and its subject matter — “Obviously, here, a patriotic theme,” she said.
While much depends on the wind, the drones are expected to assemble about 200 feet in the air into formations like an American flag and an eagle that “will be able to look like it’s flapping its wings,” Ms. Price said.
Asked how a drone display compares with a traditional fireworks show, Ms. Price said that “both can create a little bit of a wow factor.”
“We certainly enjoy fireworks,” she said. “They’re part of the Fourth of July environment.”
Wildfires tore across California, Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states this week, churning through bone-dry mountainsides, scorching buildings and forcing hundreds of people to evacuate their homes.
“Not to dampen patriotic enthusiasm as Independence Day approaches, but isn’t it time this state brought its July 4 observances into the climate-changed 21st century?” The Sacramento Bee wrote in an editorial asking whether it was time for an outright ban on fireworks in fire-prone California, where the authorities have responded to more than 2,350 wildfires in the first half of the year.
A drone show will be held at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif. Several towns in Arizona are also putting on light shows with drones, CNN affiliates reported.
In Utah, residents of Duchesne County are being urged to think twice about using fireworks as firefighters battle the Dollar Ridge Fire. The extremely dry conditions are making the county one of many areas in Utah under a firework restriction, News4Utah reported.
Other cities and towns are choosing to delay July 4 celebrations or cancel them completely.
In southwest Colorado, smoke from the so-called 416 fire has blanketed communities for weeks, drifting from the San Juan National Forest into populated areas.
In Durango, Colo., the authorities canceled the city’s annual fireworks display because of the dry conditions. Other events were affected by the smoke, said Michael Kelly, a community events supervisor.
The city’s Freedom 5K race and an outdoor reading of historical documents were canceled because of poor air quality. A pancake breakfast and a bicycle ride were delayed, but they began later in the day, after some of the smoke had cleared.
Mr. Kelly said city officials, worried about a recent drought, canceled the fireworks display before the 416 fire started.
“We didn’t want to take the risk,” he said.
Officials considered holding a laser and drone show, but decided not to because it would have been too expensive, he said.
“But there are still a lot of people in town and we are going to show them a good time,” Mr. Kelly said.
Fireworks were also canceled in Silverton, Colo., a town with a sightseeing train and soaring mountain ranges just north of Durango. The city said that visitors heading to the town to celebrate “will be greeted with a stark reminder of just how dangerous wildfires can be.”
“The 416 fire has left a 20-mile scar between Hermosa and Needles on the west side of the road,” the city said, referring to Highway 500. “Thousands of people were displaced.”
Silverton’s volunteer fire department, usually in charge of the celebratory pyrotechnics, is dark this year.
“It is so dry up here,” said Michael Maxfield, an assistant chief. “We only got 40 inches of snow for the winter, and we are used to about 200.”
Referring to surrounding communities, he added, “no one around us is doing any kind of fireworks.”
Matt Stevens contributed reporting.