Last night, I saw the best fireworks show of my life. Seriously.  Madison’s Rhythm and Booms claims to be the largest fireworks show in the midwest, and I’m not sure if that’s true, but it was quite an impressive display. We found great seats along the shore of the lake in Warner Park, so that we could see the show twice- once in the sky and again in the sparkling reflections in the lake. Amazing.

There was a fire ban in effect in Madison because of the drought conditions we are experiencing, but this professional show was exempt from the ban. As we picnicked and listened to the early evening concerts, we watched local fire crews spray down the grass across the lake in preparation for falling sparks.

Unfortunately, their precautionary measures were not enough. About 15 minutes into the show, the grass along the lake directly across from us clearly caught fire. We watched as the flames danced and spread, the smoke blending in to the skeletons of the fireworks that floated across the sky. I found myself paying less attention to the sky and more to the lake shore, hoping that the show would end soon so they could put out the flames.

The fireworks and the fire, captured by my friend Nora Hertel

As the show continued, another section of grass caught fire. The small patches of burning wetland vegetation were too close to the ongoing ignitions of the official show, so they smoldered along until the sky became quiet and firefighters could slip through the darkness and put out the flames.

A third and fourth fires caught in a small island of trees in the lake. The flames stayed low, not jumping into the canopy, but spread through the underbrush efficiently. With more fuel available that the shoreline fires and no easy access for firemen with hoses, the flames continued to spread after the fireworks finale.

The brush fire grows, glowing in the dark after the fireworks’ finale. Photo by Beth Decker.

We waited while many other families headed home, watching the other fires be put out and wondering how they were going to reach the burning island, pictured above. When we left, the flames were still spreading.

These little fires in Warner park did not threaten any lives. Surrounded by a lake, the island fire was not going to spread that far. But they still reminded me why it’s dangerous to play with fire during a dry summer. Here in the midwest, it’s easy to think that wildfires are something that only happen other places; the dry grasslands of Texas or pine forests in Colorado. In fact, the worst wildfire in American history happened here in Wisconsin, back in 1871. More than 1,000 people died in the 1.5 million acre Peshtigo fire, proving that the Midwest can be flammable too.

As the fourth of July approaches and people across the country prepare to celebrate, I hope they remember that this is a hot, dry summer. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 15,500 fires were started by fireworks in 2010.   Although many of these fires stay small, like the ones I watched last night, others do not, damaging homes, injuring people, and spreading across forests.

Across the country, communities are deciding against fireworks this week because of drought conditions and high fire danger. Hopefully, amateurs decide to follow suit and not try to replace the community show with an at-home or at-campsite show of their own. Even with professional set-up and fire prevention measures, several fires started last night. Luckily, professionals were on hand to put them out too (except on the island). In your neighborhood or campground, those resources are not available, and this summer, it’s clearly just not safe most places.

I hate to rail against fireworks. I love them. I’m lucky I got to see the show last night. It was stunning, but it was also stressful as I began thinking about the dangers that those beautiful flying sparks could cause in other communities and other parks this week.

Last night’s show was amazing. Better than New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas when the shows surrounds you as each casino tries to out-do the others and the competitive colors reflect off of all the shiny skyscrapers. Better than an unexpected show above a floating hotel on a Thai river. Better than the backyard show my dad put on for my sister’s graduation party that got the cops called on him.  But also worse, because we left thinking more about the lasting flames than the faded fireworks.

Note: According to a reliable source who returned to Warner Park today (Sunday, the day after the fireworks) to take her pup to the dog park, there’s still smoke emerging from near the island. Thanks Nora!

The fire continued as we headed for home. Awesome photo by Beth Decker.


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