After two years of Fourth of July celebrations without fireworks during the COVID-19 pandemic, the California resort community of North Lake Tahoe is ready to light up the sky again. But instead of traditional fireworks, more than 100 drones will take off for a light show set to music. Like an increasing number of communities across the region, city planners chose fire safety and sustainability over nostalgia as California faces a brutal megadrought.
“Fireworks have their own list of known environmental impacts, including noise pollution, lake effects, and increased fire risk at a time when wildfire risk is already so high,” Katie Biggers, executive director of the Tahoe City Downtown Association, said. earlier this year in a press release announcing the decision.
The entirety of Placer County, where the North Lake Tahoe drone show will take place, is facing severe drought — with a third of the county facing “extreme drought,” according to the US Drought Monitor.
Those bone-dry conditions, exacerbated by blistering heat and, you guessed it – climate change, are turning landscapes into tinder boxes. Dry vegetation causes wildfires to spiral out of control. All it takes is a spark, and fireworks displays have had enough.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments in the US responded to an estimated 19,500 calls for fires caused by fireworks in 2018. Those fires injured 46 people, killed five and cost $105 million in property damage.
So it’s not much of a surprise that communities in the increasingly fire-prone western US are turning to less risky drone shows. This year, in addition to North Lake Tahoe, these include Galveston, Texas and Lakewood, Colorado. In recent years, drones have made more appearances at other big bashes: the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics, the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show, Drake’s 2018 summer tour, just to name a few.
Demand for drone shows this year is “exponentially higher than last year,” Graham Hill, founder and CEO of drone show company Hire UAV Pro, told IPS. axios† “As we follow the evolution of this, I don’t think most communities knew last year that this was a viable option.”
The cost can be a barrier to small towns interested in a less flammable option. The Tahoe City Downtown Association asked for donations from local organizations and residents to fund the drone show, which it said cost “considerably more” than fireworks. The bill for a drone show can run up to $25,000 or more, compared to $2,000 for a small fireworks show, according to axios†
And even in the fire-prone west, some communities hold on to tradition. Nearby South Lake Tahoe is hosting a fireworks display this year, having narrowly survived the Caldor fire that raged from August to October last year.