December 23, 2012

First year of legal fireworks is relatively uneventful

Based on a low number of injuries and fires, Maine's expert will recommend no changes to the law.

By BEN McCANNA Morning Sentinel

When the Maine Legislature legalized consumer fireworks nearly a year ago, many residents predicted the worst: devastating fires, mortal injuries and sleepless nights.

click image to enlarge

Tyler Basinger restocks shelves as customers line up in July at the Pyro City fireworks store in Manchester. Owner Steve Marson said he plans to open two more stores in Maine next year. “In my opinion, it was a very safe year,” he said.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

STATE FIRE MARSHAL GUIDELINES

Earlier this year, Acting State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas issued a news release saying that fireworks users must:

Be 21 or older.

Buy fireworks at state-licensed stores.

Check with municipalities for local ordinances governing the use of fireworks.

Avoid areas or conditions that are susceptible to fires, such as dry grass or timber.

Use fireworks only between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Use fireworks only on one's own property, or another's property if written permission is given.

Keep a garden hose, water bucket or fire extinguisher nearby.

Wear eye protection.

Follow all directions provided on packaging.

Light only one device at a time.

Keep spectators at a safe distance.

Be considerate of neighbors, pets and the environment.

Clean up debris when finished.

Stand clear of any device that does not discharge for at least 15 minutes; then douse it with water.

Maintain close supervision of children; keep them at a safe distance and make sure fireworks are kept out their reach.

Call 911 in an emergency.

STATE LAW AND LOCAL RULES ON FIREWORKS

SINCE the state law allowing use and sale of commercial fireworks took effect Jan. 1, more than 50 Maine communities have enacted their own fireworks ordinances:

Andover: Sale and use banned.

Auburn: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell banned.

Augusta: Ban on use and sale.

Bangor: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell or use banned.

Bath: Use and sale banned.

Biddeford: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell or use banned.

Boothbay Harbor: Use and sale banned.

Brunswick: Use and sale banned.

Buxton: Use and sale banned.

Caribou: Fire permit required for use; use restricted to certain areas of town.

Cumberland: Sale banned; use restricted to five days per year, on holidays.

Damariscotta: Sale banned; use restricted to certain areas.

Eliot: Use banned.

Ellsworth: Use banned during periods of high fire danger -- class 4 or greater.

Fairfield: Sale allowed with permit; use restricted to July 2-6.

Falmouth: Use and sale banned.

Farmingdale: Use permitted 5--10 p.m. only, except July 3--5, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. May not be used at all when fire danger, as designated by the Maine Forest Service, is class 4 or 5. Three complaints about any user will result in that user not being allowed to use fireworks in Farmingdale.

Freeport: Sale and possession with intent to sell banned; use within 50 feet of any public way banned.

Frye Island: Use banned "unless sanctioned by the Town of Frye Island Board of Selectmen."

Gardiner: Ban on use; sale permitted.

Greenwood: Sale banned; use restricted to holidays and banned during periods of high fire danger -- class 3 or greater.

Hallowell: Use restricted to certain areas of city. Contact city officials for more information.

Harpswell: Sale banned; use restricted to five specified days per year.

Harrison: Use and sale banned.

Hermon: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell banned.

Hollis: Use and sale banned.

Kennebunkport: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell banned.

Lewiston: Sale banned.

Mechanic Falls: Use restricted to Fridays and Saturdays, plus four holidays.

Mount Desert: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell banned.

North Berwick: Use restricted to 50 feet from combustibles; banned during periods of high fire danger -- class 4 or greater.

North Yarmouth: Use within 50 feet of any public way is banned.

Old Orchard Beach: Use and sale banned.

Orono: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell banned.

Owls Head: Use and sale banned.

Portland: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell banned.

Rockland: Use and sale banned.

Saco: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell banned.

Sanford: Use banned.

Scarborough: Sale is allowed with permit; use restricted to five specified days per year.

Skowhegan: Use is permitted, sale is banned.

South Portland: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell or use banned.

Unity: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell banned.

Waldoboro: Fire permit required for use; use banned during periods of high fire danger -- class 4 or greater; use within 50 feet of public land banned; use downtown banned.

Waterville: Use and sale banned.

Wayne: Use and sale banned.

Wells: Use and sale banned.

Winslow: Town permit needed for sale.

Winthrop: Use OK 9 a.m.--9 p.m., extended to 12:30 a.m. Fourth of July, New Year's Eve and weekends before and after those holidays. Sale banned.

Wiscasset: Sale limited to certain areas of town; use banned.

Woodstock: Sale banned.

Yarmouth: Use, sale and possession with intent to sell banned.

York: Use and sale banned.

Source: staff reports and www.maine.gov/dps/fmo/fireworks

One year later, the verdict is in: So far so good.

That's the assessment of Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst with the State Fire Marshal's Office, who oversees the retail fireworks industry in Maine.

Taylor, who has collected preliminary data on the state's first year of fireworks, said there were 19 fireworks-related injuries and few fires in 2012.

There are still more data to collect, but Taylor will not recommend any changes to the law when he presents his first annual report on fireworks to the Legislature early next year.

Meanwhile, after an initial boom in sales last summer, consumers' appetite for fireworks seemingly has cooled, according to the state's largest fireworks retailer.

At the start of 2012, fireworks were legal in Maine, but there was no place to buy them. Stringent building codes delayed retailers' entry into the market. By spring, however, fireworks stores began cropping up throughout the state and business was suddenly brisk.

Today there are 16 fireworks stores and another will be licensed soon, Taylor said.

As the availability of fireworks rose, so did the number of noise complaints. In June and early July, many police departments were swamped with calls as municipal leaders struggled to find a balance between residents' right to use fireworks and their right to peace and quiet, as is afforded by local noise ordinances.

After the Fourth of July, however, fireworks-related complaints tapered off significantly. Police in Waterville and Winslow, for instance, saw reports drop from as many as eight per day to zero.

As part of the law, the fire marshal's office is required to present an annual report on consumer fireworks to the Legislature. The report isn't complete, but Taylor said the preliminary data are encouraging.

"Overall, I'd say we're happy," he said.

Taylor's report will be compiled from data provided by hospitals and municipal fire departments, which are required to file fireworks-related incident reports to the state.

The injury reports contain medical providers' assessments in four categories: the severity of injury, the areas of the body that were injured, the reason for the accident and the type of device that was used.

Of the 19 fireworks-related injuries this year, four were significant, meaning they involved third-degree burns or partial or total loss of digits, hearing or sight, Taylor said.

Most of the injuries were caused by stationary fireworks, such as mortar tubes. Stationary fireworks do not include handheld fireworks such as sparklers or firecrackers. In most cases, human error or failure to follow instructions -- not malfunction -- caused the injury, Taylor said.

Fire data won't be complete until summer because municipal fire departments aren't required to file their reports until the end of July, Taylor said. Nonetheless, the fire marshal's office has received some reports of fireworks-related blazes, most of which were minor brush fires, he said.

Two of the year's worst fireworks-related fires -- an apartment fire in Portland and a deck fire in Old Orchard Beach -- were caused by handheld sparklers, which were legal in Maine before the 2012 law.

In Augusta, where the use and sale of fireworks is banned, the fire department responded to six fireworks-related calls in 2012, Fire Chief Roger Audette said. Five calls were for grass fires. Another fire call was caused by someone setting off fireworks in the hallway of an apartment building, he said.

In the most significant event, firefighters spent almost two hours dousing a half-acre brush fire caused by a juvenile.

(Continued on page 2)

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