Englewood Fourth of July fireworks cancellation a contentious decision

Planning involved conflicting understanding of fire ban; some councilmembers want changes to process


In Englewood, one of several municipalities in the Denver metro area that canceled early-July fireworks shows this year amid concerns about dry conditions and risk of fires, the city council made its decision after a planning process where city officials may have been operating on conflicting concepts of what a local fire ban meant.

In mid-May, at a time when the city had a stage 2 fire ban in place, Englewood Fire Marshal Mike Smith wrote to the Englewood Police Department: “With a stage 2 fire ban in place this also includes to have no professional fire work(s).”

Englewood’s definition of a stage 2 fire ban appears not to include an exemption for professional fireworks shows, according to the city’s website.

Later in May, the city’s parks and recreation director wrote in an email that city council still needed to have a discussion about the fireworks event despite the fire ban.

“They do have the authority to make the official decision on the event,” wrote Christina Underhill, Englewood’s director of parks, recreation, library and golf.

By the time city council gathered to decide whether to move forward with Englewood’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show, the fire ban had been downgraded to stage 1, a status that allows for public fireworks displays.

Still, Englewood City Council on June 6 canceled the annual fireworks show at Belleview and Cornerstone parks for this year in a 4-3 decision after hearing concerns from city staff that dry weather conditions would push the fire risk back up in the following weeks, triggering a potential return to a stage 2 ban.

Englewood’s annual July 4 fireworks show is a regional draw in the south metro area — an estimated 20,000-plus people gathered there in 2019.

Englewood City Councilmember Joe Anderson at the June 6 meeting criticized the idea that the city should be relying on predictions of fire-risk conditions weeks in advance.

“We could get a week’s dump of rain at the end of June. We have no idea what’s going to happen,” Anderson said during the June 6 meeting. “I trust our fire marshal to make the call — if it comes down to July 4 and it’s dry and dangerous, we should not have fireworks. Despite the risk of needing to cancel at the last minute, the city should prioritize the possibility of putting on a fireworks show."

Underhill told the city council that moving ahead with a plan for a fireworks show would leave the city unable to pivot to a Fourth of July event without fireworks if dry conditions were to force a fireworks cancellation.

“We’ve got to book things now for the alternative event if we do not (do) the fireworks,” Underhill told council during the meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Steven Ward, who along with Anderson was among the three councilmembers who supported moving forward with a tentative plan to hold fireworks, said he wants the city to create a “more structured” process for planning the fireworks event in future years.

“I would like to see a more exacting approach to the timeline: when the question of cancellation comes to council, when that potential decision needs to be made by, what would cause a cancellation … as opposed to these sort of one-off type discussions that have been occurring in years past,” Ward told Colorado Community Media.

Some other councilmembers want a change to the planning process as well, although it’s unclear whether the council in general will support it, Ward said.

Anderson felt there’s a "civic and national pride that comes along with celebrating our freedoms on the Fourth of July," he said.

“Fireworks hold a significant, symbolic meaning in the mind of our citizens,” Anderson said. He added: “But the second thing I would say is there’s a long tradition of doing the fireworks in Englewood, and it means a lot to a lot of citizens.”

Staffers issue conflicting messages

In late May when the stage 2 fire ban was still in effect, Englewood city staff was proceeding as though fireworks would be canceled, weeks before the city council decision.

Colorado Community Media received emails regarding planning for the fireworks from the City of Englewood via a public-records request.

“I wanted to give you a heads up that the Englewood 4th of July Fireworks Celebration, has been cancelled, due to the high fire danger,” Ryan Kaspar, an official with the Englewood Police Department, wrote in a May 24 message in an email chain regarding planning for the event.

“I am going to let Shawn/Tim know we will be canceling the fireworks,” Underhill wrote May 20 in another email chain about the planning. Shawn Lewis is the Englewood city manager and Tim Dodd is the assistant city manager.

Another set of emails appeared to suggest it would be possible for the city to go against the fire ban and put on a fireworks show, although that email chain seems to refer to the Arapahoe County fire ban, which doesn’t apply to the entire county.

Separately, a prohibition on certain fireworks was considered by the Arapahoe County Commissioners this spring, but it would apply in unincorporated areas of Arapahoe County rather than in cities such as Englewood.

Arapahoe County’s website says a stage 2 fire ban — the most restrictive — contains exemptions, including for “public fireworks displays supervised by appropriate firefighting/public safety personnel and supported by adequate equipment assigned to be on the scene of such permitted.”

But Englewood’s fire marshal issues fire bans that apply to the city.

“Currently (on) April 22, 2022, we went into a stage 2 fire ban. What a stage 2 fire ban means is you can’t have any professional fireworks,” Smith told city council at the June 6 meeting — by which time the ban had already been reduced to stage 1.

Aligning with what Smith said, exemptions to a stage 2 fire ban in Englewood do not appear to allow for professional fireworks, according to the city’s website.

On the other hand, a stage 1 fire ban in Englewood includes among its exemptions: “Public fireworks displays permitted by appropriate fire district/public safety personnel and supported by adequate equipment assigned to be on the scene of such site, at the discretion of the fire district/public safety authority.”

Both the Arapahoe County and the City of Englewood fire bans were downgraded to a stage 1, an email from Smith to other city staff said on June 2. As of June 25, the stage 1 ban was still in effect, according to Englewood’s website.

Ward felt that “somebody in the line” of the planning process would likely prefer not putting on the fireworks in general.

“There have even been some discussions in the past that I can recall from my time on the (city) Budget Advisory Committee (about) whether the event itself is the highest and best use of city dollars, or if there’s an event or events that we can put in its place,” Ward said.

That was discussed “sort of casually” several years ago when Ward served on the committee, which hears presentations from city staff members, he said.

“I would not be surprised to find out that there was at least one or perhaps (multiple) staff members that would prefer not to do this event,” Ward said, noting that he’s not sure that’s the case.

“Ultimately, the choice is council’s choice,” Ward said.

Area officials cite fire risk

Arapahoe County, Sheridan, South Suburban Parks and Recreation, Littleton and Englewood work together to put on the annual Fourth of July event at Belleview and Cornerstone parks.

“Arapahoe County, South Suburban and Littleton expressed concern with hosting a fireworks show due to (increased) fire danger in heavily populated areas,” a June 6 report from city staff to city council says.

Kelli Narde, a City of Littleton spokesperson, voiced concerns along those lines in an email chain that included the partnering local government entities.

“Based on Douglas County's experience of shooting off fireworks at three shows last December, all of which resulted in fires, and since the devastating Marshall Fire, and other cities that have cancelled, including Parker which is doing a drone show, I think there needs to be a frank discussion of the benefits and risks of moving forward with fireworks,” Narde wrote in a May 16 email.

When Englewood’s council made its June 6 decision, favoring the cancellation of the fireworks show were Mayor Othoniel Sierra and Councilmembers Chelsea Nunnenkamp, Cheryl Wink and Jim Woodward. The minority urging the fireworks plan to remain in place with the possibility of a late cancellation if conditions warranted consisted of Ward, the mayor pro tem; Anderson; and Councilmember Rita Russell.

Event staff and partners planned an alternative event for the Fourth of July with no fireworks for 1 to 6 p.m. July 4 at Belleview and Cornerstone parks. That would include vendors, food trucks, games and activities, according to another report from Englewood city staff.

The report said the options to hold a drone or laser show were “priced out.”

“There are (now) no drone or laser shows available for 2022 as they have been booked since the middle of last year,” the report said.

‘It’s been a big part of Englewood’s life’

Les Nack, who said he has lived in Englewood since 1951, spoke at the June 20 Englewood City Council meeting, telling the council he had been involved in Englewood’s Fourth of July event and the fireworks over a period spanning about six decades, dating back to around 1964. For a number of years, he served as the lead technician for the fireworks display, he said.

He joined a young men’s organization, the Englewood Jaycees, in 1962, he said. That organization was involved in shooting the annual fireworks display for Englewood, he said.

“It’s just been a big part of my life. It’s been a big part of Englewood’s life,” Nack told the council.

The times when Englewood’s fireworks were canceled before, as Nack remembers, were in 2020 due to COVID-19 and possibly another time because of a drought situation.

“Any cancellation is too many for me,” Nack said.

Sierra, the mayor, responded to Nack and said it was a “very tough decision” to cancel the fireworks and that hearing people speak about the decision was “salt to the wound.”

The mayor added that “Anderson made a very good point” that “we are always going to be dry, and this is going to be a conversation we’re going to have year after year.”

For future years, the mayor told Nack: “I will really think about your words and your history with the fireworks and how it affects people in our city when we cancel the fireworks show.”

Englewood Colorado, fireworks, July 4, Belleview Park, 2022, Littleton, Ellis Arnold


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