The grassy banks of the Trinity River are drier than a firecracker on the Fourth of July.

Extreme heat and drought made Fort Worth a tinderbox ahead of the holiday weekend, city officials warned. It all came to a head when the city’s fireworks show, Fort Worth’s Fourth, was canceled after a grass fire on the banks of the Trinity River became too much for operators to manage. 

The show has room for improvement, said Adam Turner, public information officer and prevention specialist for the Texas A&M Forest Service in North Texas. The city could: 

  • Shoot fireworks from a boat or barge in a large body of water rather than on land.
  • Shoot fireworks from a non-flammable surface like concrete or gravel. 
  • Thoroughly wet the area using a sprinkler system for a week before the show. 
  • Account for a deficit of water in drought-affected grass and compensate with more water.

Put on by fireworks operator Magic in the Sky, the show is required to follow the National Fire Protection Administration standards. These spell out how to prepare the site and set guidelines for cancellations. 

But federal standards are often a minimum, Turner said. The standards recommend cancellations when winds are sustained above 20 or gusts above 25 miles per hour, but don’t offer any guidance for cancellation based on drought conditions. 

“It is always better to have more safety than less,” he said. “But at the same time, you have to balance … How much can we reduce firework use, while also allowing that public celebration?”

Typically, event organizers and municipalities try to limit risk by increasing fire department staffing or keeping firefighters on site to respond in case a firework show gets out of hand. 

The city of Fort Worth had both, fire officials said. Firefighters were on site at the fireworks show, and the department called in additional staff on July 4 weekend to respond to calls. 

Small fires breaking out over the course of a fireworks show is normal, Fire Chief Jim Davis said during a Tuesday press conference to discuss the department’s response to the grass fire. 

Tarrant Regional Water District and its nonprofit counterpart Streams and Valleys sponsor and coordinate Fort Worth’s Fourth. The water district preps the firework staging area every year by mowing the grass. The water district also used an agricultural sprinkler system and a water truck to wet the grass periodically for two weeks leading up to the event. 

This year, in anticipation of extreme drought, the water district added a small pontoon boat with a large hose to the mix, using river water to wet down the surface of the levees. 

To lessen risk of fire, Magic in the Sky LLC recommended in its proposal to the water district: 

  • Watering down the areas and items of concern immediately before the display
  • Redirecting the fallout by moving the fireworks or re-angling the mortars
  • Increasing the separation distance between the fireworks and the areas containing
  • the fire hazards
  • Modifying the content of the display to eliminate the fireworks of greatest concern
  • Increasing the amount of suppression equipment and personnel in the immediate area
  • Delaying the display until weather conditions have improved

The Report reached out to Magic in the Sky asking if all these recommendations were followed but did not receive a response in time for publication. 

Federal standards require a minimum amount of spacing between the staging area and the audience based on the number and type of fireworks used. Operators are required to submit a site plan for review by the Fort Worth Fire Department, which then approves the site plan. 

The standards do not outline any requirements for proper preparation of the site to ensure the grass is wet enough to avoid risk of fire. 

The fire department will complete a post-incident analysis and consider making recommendations to city leadership about possible changes to next year’s celebration.  

“We will internally look at what we did, how we did it and we will decide if we had areas of opportunity for improvement,” Davis said. 

The water district accepts some level of risk when putting on a firework display, Tarrant Regional Water District spokesman Matt Oliver said. 

“Sometimes you’ll see some of these little fires in the front and they’re (firework operators) able to run down and physically put them out,” Oliver said. “I would firmly say that leading up to it, all reasonable measures were taken … to have additional pre-emptive measures as far as the watering.” 

This time, wind and drought conditions caused the fire to spread more rapidly than expected, fire officials said. Over 97% of the state is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

When planning firework displays, finding a non-combustible launch site is key. The fireworks were launched from a large grassy area on the levees of the Trinity River.

“Shooting fireworks or explosives off into a grassy field is never a good idea, whether it’s a drought or not,” Turner said. “But utilizing these fireworks on concrete roadways or gravel roadways, any kind of non-combustible surface is probably the best option for anybody.”

Often, the best option to shoot off fireworks is off a barge in a body of water, Turner said.

“Those work great because whatever’s coming out of your fireworks just lands in the body of water,” Turner said. “Not necessarily great for the environment, but a lot better when it comes to just looking at the one aspect of not starting fires.”

A sprinkler system is the best way to ensure a grassy area doesn’t catch on fire, Turner said. Officials making preparations during a drought should keep in mind the grass is already experiencing a deficit of water, so it may be more difficult to ensure the grass is moist enough to ward off spark developing into grass fires.  

“Humans cause 90% of wildfires in Texas,” Turner said. “Anything that we can do to reduce wildfires, especially when we’re in drought conditions like this, is important.”

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org