Friday, December 6, 2013
Since Maine legalized fireworks last year, communities across the state have imposed a patchwork of regulations that could mean the difference between night skies filled with clusters of exploding light in one town this Fourth of July and quiet darkness in another.
Scarborough Police Officer Michael Beeler is on duty at Phantom Fireworks in Scarborough on Tuesday, July 2, 2013. Management of Phantom Fireworks hired Scarborough Police for special duty as the Fourth of July approaches.
Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer
Shane Gardner of Millinocket stocks up for a neighborhood fireworks show at Phantom Fireworks in Scarborough on Tuesday, July 2, 2013.
Carl D. Walsh / Staff Photographer
The state Fire Marshal's Office continued to update its website Tuesday, listing restrictions and prohibitions on consumer fireworks that cities and towns have passed recently. The website includes a summary of the state law allowing fireworks in communities without rules of their own.
On Monday night, the Westbrook City Council gave initial approval to an ordinance that would ban the use of fireworks on all days except July 4 and 5 and Dec. 31, when they could be set off, with a permit, at any time from 9 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.
The council will not take a final vote on the ordinance until later this month or next, so Westbrook falls under state law as allowing fireworks, for now.
"It makes it complicated," said Richard Taylor, the senior planner in the Fire Marshal's Office. "Every town is different."
In towns without restrictions, consumer fireworks can typically be set off between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. Those hours are expanded for the Fourth of July holiday weekend to 9 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Taylor said every big city in the state – Portland, South Portland, Augusta, Lewiston, Auburn and Bangor – have prohibited fireworks, but most towns have no restrictions.
Some allow fireworks on only certain days of the year, while others prohibit setting off fireworks on days that the Maine Forest Service ranks as having a higher risk of fire.
Sales were brisk Tuesday morning at Phantom Fireworks, just off the Maine Turnpike in Scarborough. The store's staff has swelled to 51 people, from its year-round staff of six, to meet the demand.
"It's still too early in the season to tell, but we're right on par with last year," the store's first, said Assistant Manager Roberta Doane. "Hopefully, we'll see an increase in the next few days."
The store's best-selling package of assorted fireworks, called Grounds for Divorce, was priced at $749 for registered premier customers. It had sold out by Tuesday morning, but many other packages remained on the shelves, Doane said.
"Even in the wintertime, we have sales every day," Doane said. "They really are pretty against the snow."
One shopper, Tami Langrell, was visiting from Florida and planning a fireworks display with family members in Lyman. She set a budget of $100 for herself.
Shane Gardner of Millinocket had already spent $600 to $700 in previous purchases and was in the store Tuesday to buy larger fireworks for his planned finale.
"Me and my brother are going to put up a big show this weekend," Gardner said, since his brother has amassed about the same amount of fireworks.
Gardner said he lives in a housing development with only half-acre lots, but he has checked with all the surrounding residents and invited his neighbors. He expects 20 or more people to attend.
"We've lit off big shows right in the driveway, and the whole development loves it," he said.
The nearby Atlas Fireworks Factory on Route 1 in Scarborough hires about a dozen seasonal employees to bolster its year-round staff of three or four, said Assistant Manager Kelly Mitchell.
Mitchell said her store doesn't sell prepackaged assortments of fireworks, but works with shoppers to choose individual fireworks to create a custom package to display.
"Everybody has a different preference for their show. Some like it really high, some like it really loud and some like pretty colors," she said.
The average customer spends $200 to $250, and some individuals and groups spend well over $1,000, Mitchell said.
While those sales are great for the state economy, not all communities see fireworks as great.
Saco Police Chief Brad Paul said his department was so inundated with complaints after the state legalized fireworks last year that he urged the City Council to impose a local ban.
"It sounded like the wild west," Paul said. "Sometimes, in town, it sounded like they were watching 'World at War' with the television turned all the way up."
Paul said he feels the city has gotten a handle on fireworks problems since it passed its ordinance. Police still get complaints from areas near Saco's four beaches, especially Ferry Beach and Kinney Shores Beach, where housing is more clustered.
"We have scheduled several extra employees" for enforcement on the Fourth of July, he said. "We will be on the beaches both in uniform and plainclothes."
In towns including Cumberland, officials have found that limiting fireworks to July 3-5, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day has been effective in curbing problems during the rest of the year.
"I think we've heard less of it now than when it was illegal," said Cumberland Police Chief Joe Charron. "If somebody is inclined to set off fireworks, and they know there are a couple times a year that they can do that, they look forward to doing that."
Many towns without their own police have no way to enforce any fireworks ordinances they pass. The towns are patrolled by state police or sheriff's departments, which by state law cannot enforce town ordinances.
Taylor said the Fire Marshal's Office faced loopholes in the law that allow fireworks sales at outdoor stands and don't require indoor retailers to have sprinkler systems.
"It's not the first time a brand-new law is released and comes across with a few quirks," Taylor said.
The Legislature considered 15 bills to alter the law this year, but none passed and only two were carried over to next session, he said.
-- Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers contributed to this report.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:
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One of many varieties of fireworks stock the shelves at Phantom Fireworks in Scarborough on Tuesday, July 2, 2013.
Carl D. Walsh / Staff Photographer