Fireworks always fun for 4th – but beware
ADDISON COUNTY — As the Fourth of July festivities approach, local residents are making preparations. In addition to burger patties, cases of soda and beer, water balloons and lighter fluid, some shopping lists include all the makings for the colorful and loud displays that will light up backyards and evening skies.
Products with names like “Behemoth,” “Field of Dreams,” “Loud & Legal” and “Goliath” are already moving off the shelves.
Fireworks are an integral part of many Fourth of July celebrations. For firework retailers, it’s the busiest time of year. For law enforcement, that means making sure people are using them safely.
In Vermont, fireworks are regulated under the same statutes that govern storage and use of gunpowder and other explosives. Consumer fireworks that are permitted in the state include sparklers less than 14 inches long with no more than 20 grams of pyrotechnic mixture. Novelty sparkling items that are permitted include “snakes,” party poppers, glow worms, smoke devices, string poppers, snappers or drop pops with no more than 0.25 grains of explosive mixture and that are in compliance with Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations.
Other varieties of fireworks including firecrackers, skyrockets, roman candles, torpedoes and “daygo bombs” are prohibited, though in Vermont average citizens can get a permit to set them off.
Fireworks are classified by the weight, gunpowder content, size and how far they eject debris. Professional display fireworks are loaded into mortar racks and are often sold without fuses (professionals will place them before use), and are extremely dangerous for amateurs to handle. They require a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and can only be used by a licensed pyrotechnician.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley urges residents to get their applications for a permit from their local fire chief in ahead of time and be considerate of their neighbors.
“Just because people have a permit doesn’t mean it’s open season,” he said. “We have a noise ordinance here and not everyone likes fireworks. They don’t like being up at 10 at night hearing bang, bang, bang.”
Fireworks ought to only be set off by what Chief Hanley described as a “competent adult.” While professionals have clinics where employees learn procedures for safely setting off fireworks, Hanley says a person needs to be a sober, responsible individual over 18 years old.
Hanley also advises users to soak down with water the area where they plan to set off the fireworks and to keep pets or animals away, as explosions can be alarming.
While Vermont regulates which varieties of fireworks people are allowed to purchase, neighboring states like New York and New Hampshire allow consumers to purchase different varieties, some of which find their way across state lines and into backyard displays.
Fireworks — like cars — don’t go with alcohol and when mixed the results can be tragic. Hanley referenced one case last year in Maine when a 22-year-old celebrating the Fourth of July was killed instantly when authorities said he placed a fireworks mortar tube atop his head and set it off with explosives inside the tube.
“They’re kind of neat, they’re fun, but in the wrong hands they can be quite dangerous,” said Hanley.
Dangers also exist for smaller-grade fireworks. Handheld sparklers, which are readily available in grocery stores, burn at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, about as hot as a blowtorch.
BIG MONEY IN FIREWORKS
According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, 70 to 80 percent of the fireworks industry’s revenue is based around the Fourth of July. Last year, industry revenues reached $755 million in backyard fireworks while sales to professionals were $340 million. This year, association spokesperson Julia Heckman said she expects consumer revenues to exceed $800 million as more states allow consumer fireworks.
“We’ve had a number of states that have been relaxing their laws on backyard fireworks,” said Heckman, a 27-year veteran of the pyrotechnics industry. “That’s a trend we’ve seen since 2010.”
Heckman also said consumers have been setting off more fireworks every year. In 2000 at the turn of the millennium, Americans set off 152.2 million pounds of fireworks. In 2015, they blew up 285.3 million pounds.
In the most recent report published in June 2015 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, fireworks were involved in an estimated 10,500 injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments during calendar year 2014. Children younger than 15 accounted for 35 percent of the injuries, and nearly half of the injuries were to individuals younger than 20 years of age. Sixty-seven percent of those recorded incidents occurred during the months surrounding the Fourth of July.
Heckman said when consumer fireworks are illegal, more people are likely to be injured by setting them off carelessly.
“As more states and communities allow the use of consumer fireworks, people take the time to prepare their activity,” she said. Where we see the fires and injuries occurring are in areas where there is a prohibition. That’s because people are choosing to break the law, they’re trying to do the activity very quickly and they’re careless. That’s when injuries occur.”
The National Fire Protection Association cited statistics that U.S. fire departments responded to an annual average of 18,500 fires caused by fireworks between 2009 and 2013, and almost half (47 percent) of the fires reported on Independence Day in the U.S. during this period were started by fireworks, more than any other cause of fire.
Towns and other groups around Vermont have contracts with professionals around the state to perform their displays. Bristol’s fireworks display comes at an annual cost of $8,000. At Kampersville in Salisbury near Lake Dunmore, the display costs $3,000.
“It’s an expense you have to account for,” said Jean Wisnowski, who has run the campground and store with her family since 1969. Wisnowski, 81, remembers competing firework displays between Kampersville and the nearby boys’ camp, Keewaydin.
“We would send one rocket up and then they’d send another,” she said. “The people in the boats love to watch.”
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