Archive for Sunday, June 30, 2002

Commission considering ban on city fireworks

June 30, 2002


The fire that gutted an apartment building last Fourth of July didn't just destroy property. It nearly took lives.

"It was very close," said Maj. Rich Barr, the city's fire marshal. "Some individuals had to run through the fire to escape it. It had actually come in through the kitchen window."

Two people were treated for smoke inhalation in the fire at 501 Colo. Another victim was treated for burns.

The cause of the fire? Investigators blamed errant fireworks ignited by patriotic revelers. In fact, officials say nearly every July Fourth brings waves of dangerous fires, annoying noise complaints and other trouble related to the city's fireworks rules.

That's why this could be the last year for wide-open fireworks use for days around July 4 in Lawrence. City commissioners say they'll review the city's fireworks laws after the holiday.

"At this point I don't need further provocation," Commissioner Mike Rundle said. "I've heard enough from our public safety people and neighbors who have to deal with this."

If commissioners pull the fuse, though, they'll have to deal with protests from those who say fireworks are an indispensable part of celebrating the Fourth of July.

"I don't think tradition's something you put away lightly," said Scott Morgan, a school board member who recently made his appeal directly to commissioners.

Enforcement complaints

The city allows fireworks use three days a year, July 2-4. Sales inside city limits are prohibited, but fireworks can be stored if done in accordance with safety codes.

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical records show the agency has responded to an average of 4.4 "fireworks-related" incidents each July 2-4 period in the past 14 years. Those incidents were blamed for $275,000 worth of property damage  most of that in last year's apartment fire.

It's not just fire, though.

Between July 1 and July 8 last year, Douglas County dispatch, which also dispatches Lawrence Police, received 260 calls related to fireworks. Most of those calls were from residents reporting people using fireworks at illegal places and times.

"It's a doozy with calls for services," Lawrence Police Sgt. Mike Pattrick said.

The holiday also generates complaints that police aren't quick enough to cite or otherwise deal with the violators of fireworks rules. Pattrick says police usually try to get violators to behave themselves before a ticket is issued.

"We try to give the person an opportunity for compliance," he said. "And if not, we issue a summons to municipal court."

This year, the city has sponsored fliers, newspaper advertisements and radio spots promoting fireworks safety in the weeks leading to the Fourth of July. One flier urges fireworks safety and encourages users to be respectful of their neighbors.

"Obviously, anything we can do to promote neighborliness is good," said Lisa Patterson, the city's communications coordinator. "We're just reminding people."

'Out of control'

Although they haven't offered specifics of what it will take to extinguish fireworks, it may not take much for commissioners to ban  or severely restrict  their use by private citizens.

"The basic question is one of public safety on the one hand versus private entertainment on the other," Commissioner David Dunfield said. "The two things don't compare very well. There are no absolute measures in either case."

Given a choice, Dunfield said, " I lean toward the public-safety side of the argument."

Commissioner Jim Henry is in favor of restricting fireworks to firecrackers, sparklers and "worms." He would outlaw aerial fireworks and limit all fireworks use to only July 4.

Henry said he had received a letter from a woman whose garden was set on fire last year by an errant rocket.

"I hear from plenty of people who say it's out of control," he said. "I think that's enough provocation right there."

Commissioner Marty Kennedy said he wanted to wait until after the holiday to form an opinion. But he didn't sound committed to continued fireworks legalization.

"I'm a Vietnam veteran, and I don't need to see the fireworks," he said. "I've already seen the fireworks."

Would a ban work?

Of course, a ban on fireworks may not make much difference in their actual use.

"The city can ban fireworks, but the people who are doing most of the bad stuff with them are going to get them anyway," said 16-year-old Jeremy Long, working his second year at J&J; Fireworks, 1164 E. 1500 Road.

Officials concede the point.

"I think initially, they probably wouldn't (obey a ban)," Barr said. "It would probably take a little while for people to go ahead and abide by those rules."

However, Rundle said, "it's still going to be a problem, but it won't be one we've set ourselves up for."

Rundle, for one, isn't concerned about changing tradition.

"In my own family, our Christmas tradition has changed dramatically three times," he said. "There are always other ways to celebrate a tradition."

Susan Garrett, who for 11 years has sold fireworks at K-10 Fireworks, near Kansas Highway 10 and Franklin Road, said tradition shouldn't be held hostage by the bad apples.

"I think there are irresponsible people in anything you do," she said. "I think it is an American tradition, and I sure don't think they should stop it."

 Business editor Chad Lawhorn contributed to this report.

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