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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 choreographed to music. Like an increasing number of communities throughout the region, city planners chose fire safety and sustainability over nostalgia as California copes with a cruel megadrought.
“Fireworks come with their own list of known environmental impacts—including noise pollution, impacts to the lake, and increased risk of fire at a time when the wildfire risk is already so high,” Katie Biggers, executive director of the Tahoe City Downtown Association, said in a press release earlier this year announcing the decision.
The entirety of Placer County, where the North Lake Tahoe drone show will take place, is dealing with severe drought conditions — with a third of the county facing “extreme drought,” according to the US drought monitor.
Those bone-dry conditions, made worse by sweltering heat and, you guessed it — climate change, turn landscapes into tinderboxes. Dry vegetation sets the stage for wildfires to burn out of control. All it needs is a spark, and firework shows have plenty of those.
Fire departments in the US responded to an estimated 19,500 calls for blazes sparked by fireworks in 2018 alone, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Those fires injured 46 people, killed five, and cost $105 million in property damage.
So it’s not really a surprise that communities across the increasingly fire-prone western US are starting to turn to less risky drone shows. This year, alongside North Lake Tahoe, this includes Galveston, Texas and Lakewood, Colorado, among others. 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, to name a few of many.
Demand for drone shows this year is “exponentially larger than last year,” Graham Hill, founder and CEO of drone show company Hire UAV Pro, told Axios. “If we’re tracking the evolution of this, I just don’t think most communities knew this was a viable option last year.”
Cost can be a barrier for 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 “significantly more” than fireworks. The bill for a drone show can add 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 are sticking with tradition. Nearby South Lake Tahoe is having a fireworks show this year after narrowly surviving the Caldor fire that raged from August to October last year.