Drought increases concern about fireworks, Lexington officials say

jkegley@herald-leader.comJune 30, 2012 

  • Safety tips

    Fireworks are fun and sparkly, and many people like to put on their own shows at home. But playing with consumer fireworks can be very dangerous and should only be used with extreme caution.

    Before you light up your neighborhood, check out these safety tips from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

    ■ Know what fireworks are permitted in your state or local area.

    ■ Don't allow young children to play with fireworks under any circumstances. Sparklers, considered by many a "safe" firework for the young, burn at very high temperatures and can ignite clothing. Children cannot understand the danger involved and cannot act appropriately in case of emergency.

    ■ Older children should only be permitted to use fireworks under close adult supervision. Do not allow any running or horseplay.

    ■ Light fireworks outdoors in a clear area away from houses, dry leaves or grass and flammable materials.

    ■ Keep a bucket of water nearby for emergencies and for pouring on fireworks that don't go off.

    ■ Do not try to relight or handle malfunctioning fireworks. Douse and soak them with water and throw them away.

    ■ Be sure other people are out of range before lighting fireworks.

    ■ Never ignite fireworks in a container, especially a glass or metal container.

    ■ Keep unused fireworks away from firing areas.

    ■ Store fireworks in a dry, cool place. Check instructions for special storage directions.

    ■ Never have any portion of your body directly over a firework while lighting.

    ■ Don't experiment with homemade fireworks.

    McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Lexington sounded like a war zone last year well past midnight for days on end, but this year there could be more at stake from fireworks than sleepless nights and scared pets.

Police, fire and city officials will meet Monday morning to decide whether fireworks will become prohibited under a citywide burn ban that was put in place last week, Lexington fire department Battalion Chief Ed Davis said.

A drought in the area, and across much of the nation, has left lawns brown and dry, leading to a spike of nuisance fires caused by cigarette butts and concern from officials that fireworks could make the situation worse.

Last year, Urban County Council members heard countless complaints about the noise, leading to a new ordinance limiting the time fireworks can be used, but the greater concern this year is the drought, councilman Bill Farmer said.

"We're watching raging fires in Colorado consuming homes and neighborhoods. I don't want that to happen here for any reason," he said. "I want people to have an overload of supervision rather than an overload of fireworks."

Other areas in the state have banned the use of consumer fireworks, and Winchester announced Friday it would cancel the city's annual fireworks display because of dry conditions. Davis said Lexington officials hope to avoid bans, but they are keeping a close eye on the weather.

"Thus far we have not had a report of a fire caused by fireworks," he said. "If that changes ... we could put a ban in place at a moment's notice."

Meanwhile, dry conditions and restrictions on usage don't seem to have affected sales. More fireworks stands have popped up in Lexington this year. There are about 45 stands in Lexington, officials said, about a dozen more than last year.

This year marks the second year the "good stuff" — bottle rockets, mortars and firecrackers — have been legal in Kentucky.

Although the drought has apparently become the greatest issue, noise is still a concern.

Police and council members said they had already received complaints about pops and cracks echoing through Lexington, keeping residents awake and causing other problems.

Twice in the last two weeks, fireworks launched from a nearby subdivision panicked horses at Mill Ridge Farm, causing two dozen horses to stampede, said Headley Bell, managing partner at the farm. The first time, they almost trampled a night watchman, he said. The second time, they almost broke through a fence.

"This goes on every year at this time of year," he said. "Fireworks are shot from the neighborhood without real sensitivity to the animals and how it affects them."

An enforcement issue

When the noise ordinance passed last year, Councilman Doug Martin cast the only dissenting vote. He did so because he thinks it will be harder for police to enforce than if the city banned aerial fireworks altogether, which it has the authority to do in spite of the state law making them legal, he said.

"I know police will do whatever they can to enforce this ordinance, but there are practical considerations," he said. "Our police and fire departments are stretched so thin. They have their hands full."

Davis said enforcement will be considered when officials meet Monday to discuss whether a ban will be enacted.

"You're talking about thousands of people who currently possess fireworks," he said. "It would be an enforcement nightmare for the police department."

An ordinance was created in response to hundreds of complaints last year about booming fireworks at all hours of the night, for days on end. The ordinance makes it illegal to shoot fireworks between the hours of 10 p.m. and 10 a.m., except for July 3 and 4, when they can be shot until midnight. First-time violators could face a $100 fine.

Lexington police Lt. Brian Maynard said calls about fireworks violations should be made to the police department's non-emergency line, (859) 258-3600. Calls to 911 should be saved for emergencies, such as fires or injuries.

Maynard said police will respond to all calls about ordinance violations, though there may be a delay, as crimes and emergencies will take priority.

"If there's other priority calls, fireworks calls won't be as high on the list as a burglary or a robbery," he said. "If (police arrive) an hour or so later, the fireworks show might be over and we might not be able to locate them."

Still, if nothing else is going on, an officer will respond immediately, and he or she will choose whether to write a ticket or issue a warning based on the circumstances, he said.

"Depending on the time of the night or if we have had previous calls there — that's all going to be considered," he said.

Record-breaking numbers

Despite the concern, shoppers driving through almost any part of town are sure to see at least one or two of colorful, explosive-laden tents outside stores or in vacant lots.

Retailers are expecting sales to be comparable to or better than last year, but it won't be clear if demand necessitates the abundance of tents until July 2 or 3, when fireworks sales typically pick up.

"It pretty much doubles as it gets closer to the holiday," said Donnie Lester, who runs a tent with his family selling TNT Fireworks in the parking lot of Meijer in Hamburg. "Today we had maybe 10 customers, tomorrow we'll have 20, the next day we'll have 40."

Last year, fireworks dealers saw a major boon in business compared to the year before, he said, when they were relegated to selling "safe and sane" fireworks such as sparklers, snakes and fountains.

A stand can be good business, retailers say. Lester said his family typically makes around $6,000 for a couple weeks' work after TNT gets its cut.

"We just make enough for the summer, to get us by," said Jimmy Ezell, Lester's father. The family is from Bowling Green.

But setting up shop comes with a good deal of red tape on a state and local level.

To do business, distributors have to register with the state fire marshal's office, local planning and zoning commissions and building inspection offices. In Lexington, the fees amount to about $900, though other localities can set their own prices, said Ben Stamper, who owns the Nicholasville-based Bluegrass Fireworks Inc.

"In Nicholasville, one permit by itself is $1,000. Mount Sterling is $500. Bowling Green is $1,000," he said. "Every city is different."

However, the hassle is worth it when business is good, he said. Lexington has no permanent retail sites competing with temporary stands.

The Greater Faith Apostolic Church on Clays Mill Road contracted with Bluegrass Fireworks to run a stand on Eastland Parkway, off New Circle Road. Member Keith Russell said profits are split 50/50 between the church and the distributor.

He wouldn't say how much money the church typically makes, only that it was enough to send the church's youth group to the North American Youth Congress last year, a gathering of Pentecostal youth from all over the nation.

"It paid for everything," he said. "It's a substantial amount for the time you put in. It's a good substantial amount."

Caution and consideration

There is likely little that officials can do to stop people from shooting fireworks, even if a ban is put in place. An existing noise ordinance, as well as an ordinance prohibiting fireworks within 200 feet of buildings, did little to deter the back-yard celebrations last year. Aerial fireworks were not uncommon in Lexington even before the fireworks were legal.

So officials are urging residents to use them wisely.

"It's about being considerate of your neighbors," Lt. Maynard said. "We do know it's this time of year, but during the middle of the week when folks typically are working, just be considerate."

In a news release last week, the fire department asked residents to stay cautious by keeping water sources handy, and not to detonate fireworks near brush, mulch and trees.

There is a possibility that scattered thunderstorms between now and the Fourth could eliminate some of the threat by the drought, WKYT meteorologist Chris Bailey said.

"We will actually go into a pattern late this weekend that will feature scattered thunderstorms," he said. "So at least that puts us in the ball game for rain around here."

However, high temperatures are expected the next few days, he said.

Davis said the city plans on Monday to relay any decisions made about fireworks.

"This heat is pretty much unprecedented," he said. "We're playing it by ear."

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197Twitter: @HLPublicSafety Herald-Leader reporter Beverly Fortune contributed to this report.

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