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What’s Being Done About Illegal Fireworks on Maui

July 2, 2016, 8:32 PM HST · Updated July 2, 8:38 PM
Nicole Schenfeld, A Special to Maui Now · 13 Comments
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As July 4th approaches, many Maui residents will head to Lahaina to watch the firework show on Monday. Other residents, however, will provide their own firework show.

Each year thousands of fireworks light up the night sky on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve from Wailuku to Pukalani to Kīhei. The fireworks seen shooting hundreds of feet into the air are aerial fireworks, and they are illegal in Hawai’i.

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    Maui County allows novelty fireworks; sparklers, snakes, fountains and cylinder cones, to name a few, which cannot go higher than 12 feet off the ground.

    Although big aerial fireworks are what make July 4th and other holidays so special, some residents want to provide the extra entertainment themselves but it can come at a price.

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    HFD Battalion Chief Terry Seelig said, “It’s important to remember that the illegal use of fireworks happens because people are willing to break the law and either recklessly or carelessly expose themselves, their neighbors, and the community to danger for a few hours of a selfish sense of fun and excitement.”

    Last July 4th, County of Maui Department of Fire and Public Safety responded to 10 brush fires or structure fires between 7:30 a.m. July 4, and 7:30 a.m. July 5, 2015. Estimating to a total of almost seven acres burned throughout Maui County.

    Captain Paul Haake of Maui County Fire Prevention Bureau said it can be difficult to tell if a fire was caused by fireworks, however, “there is an increase in the number of fire incidents during the times that fireworks are available for sale and use,” he said.

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    Haake recalled a house fire about two or three years ago saying, “the fire started on the shake roof. “Although the Fire Department was unable to find evidence of fireworks, “there was a lot of aerial fireworks being used in the neighborhood,” he added.

    Two years ago on New Year’s Eve, a 600-square-foot cottage in Kahului was destroyed with an estimated $152,000 in damage.

    “Using fireworks is playing with fire. When you play with fire, you increase your chances of getting burned.” Haake stated.

    To date, there have been a total of 65 firework-related injuries in Maui County on July 4th and New Year’s Eve since 2007.

    There were 545 firework-related injuries statewide from Jan. 1, 2007 – Jan. 1, 2011. After O’ahu implemented the ban on fireworks, including novelty fireworks, those numbers drastically decreased to 199 injuries from July 4, 2011 to Jan. 1, 2016.

    Daniel Galanis, Ph.D., an epidemiologist in the Emergency Medical Services and Injury Prevention Systems Branch for Hawai’i Department of Health said that overall, a slight majority (55%) of the injured were children under 18 years of age, but that proportion decreased significantly from 58% up to and including 2011, to 48% for ensuing years. On Oahu, these proportions decreased from 57% up through 2011 to 37% for 2012 and later, reflecting the age restrictions in the ordinance.

    With the information provided, 360 firework-related injuries had information on the type of firework that caused the injury. Firecrackers caused 98 injuries, flower/bloom/blossoms caused 78, and sparklers caused 40. There were 53 patients that were injured by aerials or “homemade” devices.

    “Emergency calls for fireworks-related emergencies has dropped considerably since the City and County of Honolulu ordinance restricting consumer fireworks on O’ahu to just firecrackers took effect in 2011,” said Battalion Chief Seelig.

    After the ban was implemented on O’ahu in 2011, firework-related injury rates dropped dramatically from 78 injuries in 2011 to 15 in 2012. However, injuries increased slightly in 2013. Some argue that the ban on O’ahu has opened doors for people to ‘experiment’ with fireworks and firecrackers, essentially allowing people to make a homemade ‘pipe bomb.’

    Pyrotechnic expert Mike Tockstein has years of experience with fireworks and has done over 200 firework shows in his career. He’s been featured on Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters” and on TLC. He said that taking apart fireworks can be very dangerous, and experimenting is very risky, “If you take apart a firework, you are exposing the volatile compositions, greatly increasing the risks associated with accidental ignition,” Tockstein stated. He added that something as trivial as not wearing the proper clothing to avoid the buildup of static charge could be a recipe for disaster. “This is why there are many regulations in place for the handling and storage of fireworks,” he added.

    The firework professional noted, “You should never dismantle fireworks, period. There is too much risk, which is why most bomb squads in the country lay an explosive charge on the fireworks or suspected bomb and blow them up, and would never attempt to dismantle them. It would take energy and tools to open up a fireworks, two things you don’t want to apply to a firework you are holding.”

    Don’t want to see Maui County join the ban, Maui officials say just follow the rules.

    “If all people using fireworks followed the manufacturer’s instruction on use, had consideration for their neighbors, used common sense, and supervised their kids, fireworks wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately there are bad apples that give fireworks a bad rap and spoil it for the others that are trying to have fun and do the right thing,” Haake stated.

    Although there is no proposal in sight for a firework ban in Maui County, Wailuku resident Kris Kim, who has been working at the Phantom Firework tent at Queen Kaʻahumanu Center, said a few bad apples shouldn’t ruin it for everybody.

    “It would be depressing (if banned), we were raised on fireworks and the kids, they get so excited when they come in here. So it would be sad, I want them to enjoy the stuff that’s legal and not get into the illegal stuff,” she stated.

    Safety is the main reason why these aerial fireworks are illegal for consumer purchase. Not only is setting them off dangerous, but also shipping them here in mislabeled containers can have severe consequences if not handled properly.

    “Fireworks are just being smuggled in with the furniture and car parts,” said state Senator Will Espero (Dist. 19: ‘Ewa Beach, Ocean Pointe, ‘Ewa by Gentry, Iroquois Point, portion of ‘Ewa Villages)

    Espero, Vice Chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee has also co-chaired an illegal fireworks task force and hopes to increase harbor container inspections around the state. He said the majority of people ship the fireworks in from the Mainland and other countries and that all containers from foreign ports are inspected, but, “the vast majority, over 200,000 domestic containers are not inspected.”

    A HPD veteran said it’s dangerous when fireworks are mislabeled in containers, and even being stored in the containers itself can magnify the danger and is similar to a giant pipe bomb.

    “Fireworks being unmarked is extremely dangerous in the sense that you don’t know the quality of it, the condition of the fireworks, don’t know how much are in there, if a container shifts around the wrong way or it impacts with low quality fireworks it would immediately set it off,” HPD source said.

    Tockstein said that there is always an inherent risk with explosives, no matter what you’re doing with them, shipping included; however, the risk is very small. “Most of the materials in display fireworks are very stable, with only a couple being a bit on the sensitive side.”

    He adds that there are two obvious dangers when shipping mislabeled containers. “One would be the shipping crew not being aware of the explosives and smoking around them, or more on the side of first responders if they are called to extinguish a fire and they are unaware of the explosive material. This is actually the main reason for placarding on boxes and shipping vehicles.”

    There are different protocols to follow when shipping/handling labeled fireworks via a truck on land. “I can’t speak to the shipping on a vessel at sea,” Tockstein said, “but examples include not using metal hooks, no sliding or dropping the boxes, and keeping any smokers away.”

    HFD Battalion Chief Terry Seelig adds that “One danger is that these containers have explosive items that can be accidentally set off causing injury or death and loss of property. Another danger is these fireworks will not be stored safely and expose business and homeowners to unknown explosive hazards.”

    Espero points out a worst case scenario. “What happens if someone were to sneak in a dirty bomb or explode a dirty bomb in Waikiki, are economy is ruined for years. We go into a recession and people lose their jobs and their homes.”

    Espero also mentioned containers are not inspected on the front end and on the back end it’s ‘non-existent.’ He says Matson (and other companies) randomly check containers for content because they make their money based on the weight and that’s what they check for. “I’m even told when they open some of the containers in these inspections they may only go inside and look through a quarter or half,” he added, “if something is tucked away in the back it’s probably 99.9999% it’s going to get brought in and nobody is going to notice and that’s where I believe fireworks, drugs and other illegal items are being brought into our state.”

    Matson was reached out to comment but never responded. Department officials remind the public that aerial fireworks are illegal and extremely dangerous. The import, sale, transfer, or use of aerial fireworks without a valid permit is considered a Class C Felony.

    Espero will reintroduce his bill again next year and hopes to enforce stricter searches on domestic imports, including adding bomb sniffing dogs to harbors.

    “I, personally and professionally, would support a ban of fireworks. I cannot speak for all members of my department,” Haake stated.

    Haake admits to doing some ‘not-too-bright’ things with fire and fireworks in his earlier years. “But since becoming a firefighter and seeing first-hand the devastation and suffering that resulted from unwanted fires, I have tried my best to follow the rules, show consideration for my neighbors, use common sense regarding safety when using fireworks, and I have supervised my kids when I have allowed them to use fireworks. If everyone else did the same, the use of fireworks may not be such a controversial issue. I say “may” because the other issues regarding fireworks stem from the noise and smoke generated by their use and not just the possibility of unwanted fires due to their use.”

    Kunani Texeira, 28, Kaua’i native and current Kīhei resident, doesn’t want fireworks to be banned on Maui, “it’s always been a tradition with my family, and now that I have a daughter, I want my daughter to enjoy the fireworks too.”

    Many will say that fireworks are tradition in Hawai’i and it shouldn’t be taken away. But again, officials remind everyone that a small few can ruin it for everyone.

    Seelig adds, “While we have a longstanding tradition of fireworks use in Hawaiʻi, we need to be mindful that improper fireworks use can be deadly to the user and also harmful to friends, loved ones and neighbors.” He adds that if people follow the permitted time when fireworks can be used and used fireworks in a safe manner, supervised children and are considerate of neighbors then fireworks can remain a tradition.

    “Remember that just because you enjoy fireworks not everyone else does. If you abuse the privilege to use fireworks you will eventually destroy the opportunity for fireworks to remain a viable tradition in Hawaii,” he said.

    Fireworks can legally be set off from 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. this Monday, July 4. Setting off fireworks outside designated times is punishable by law. Novelty fireworks can be purchased at Queen Kaʻahumanu Center until 8 p.m. Monday, you must be 18 years of age to purchase.

    The only Maui Firework display can be seen throughout Front Street beginning at 8 p.m.

    As a reminder, all cars are to be moved off Front Street by 4 p.m.; the road will close at 4 p.m. and will re- open at 9 p.m. To avoid heavy traffic leave early and celebrate safely.

    For more information on firework safety click here.

    Department of Health provides this table of firework-related injuries in Hawai'i. In the chart you can see there was a dramatic decrease in the annual number of injuries after 2011, the year Honolulu County passed an ordinance restricting use of fireworks. Photo Courtesy: Daniel Glanis, DOH

    Department of Health provides this table of firework-related injuries in Hawai’i. In the chart you can see there was a dramatic decrease in the annual number of injuries after 2011, the year Honolulu County passed an ordinance restricting use of fireworks.
    Photo Courtesy: Daniel Glanis, DOH

    Fireworks over Maui. Photo Courtesy: Theresa Serianni

    Fireworks over Maui.
    Photo Courtesy: Theresa Serianni

    Legal fireworks in Maui can be purchased at the Phantom Firework tent at Queen Kaʻahumanu Center until 8 p.m. Monday, July 4.

    Legal fireworks in Maui can be purchased at the Phantom Firework tent at Queen Kaʻahumanu Center until 8 p.m. Monday, July 4.

    Novelty fireworks can be purchased at the Phantom Firework tent at Queen Kaʻahumanu Center until Monday, July 4. Photo: Nicole Schenfeld

    Novelty fireworks can be purchased at the Phantom Firework tent at Queen Kaʻahumanu Center until Monday, July 4.
    Photo: Nicole Schenfeld

    Customers looking at novelty fireworks at the Phantom Fireworks Tent at Queen Kaʻahumanu Center. Photo: Nicole Schenfeld

    Customers looking at novelty fireworks at the Phantom Fireworks Tent at Queen Kaʻahumanu Center.
    Photo: Nicole Schenfeld

    Fireworks, file image by Wendy Osher.

    Fireworks, file image by Wendy Osher.

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