In Boston in 1919, a vat holding two million gallons of molasses collapsed, sending a giant wave of the sticky stuff through the North End, killing 21 people, injuring 150, destroying buildings, overturning train cars and ruining livelihoods.
From that, the people of Boston learned something — molasses is a nice thing you don’t think a lot about until it comes crashing down your street.
What does that have to do with fireworks?
That goes to the other thing Boston learned — once the molasses is out of the vat, there wasn’t one human thing that could be done to put it back in. Mainers are learning the same thing about fireworks since their sale and use became legal in the state in January. It is almost pointless to try to keep them under control in a lot of smaller towns.
When there was first talk of lifting the fireworks ban, most of the concern was about safety. As anyone can tell you who has lived in New Hampshire — the one New England state that until this year allowed fireworks use — sure, there’s the occasional blown off hand or burned-down garage, but the real issue is noise.
And no, people don’t wait until it’s dark to set them off. That fireworks are pretty isn’t the appeal. The joy of fireworks is that they blow up and go bang.
In a largely rural state that means pets and livestock are affected. People who think it’s fun to throw fireworks into a lake don’t take into account things like the protected loon population. They certainly don’t take into account that some people expect peace and quiet when they’re in paradise.
Since January, several communities have enacted fireworks bans or other restrictions, including Augusta, Waterville, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Hallowell, Unity, Wayne and Winthrop. Most of those communities have police forces that can enforce the restrictions.
Many towns, including Chelsea, Belgrade, Litchfield and a host of others, have briefly considered, then rejected, restrictions. It’s just too hard.
Some communities are still struggling with what to do.
Winslow’s Town Council last week tabled an ordinance because there are still “too many questions.” Winslow is home to one of the fireworks stores that opened this year.
The Fairfield Town Council last week rejected an ordinance that would have restricted fireworks to 19 days in the year after discussing it at several meetings.
In Monmouth, selectmen are considering a petition by a resident, Kent Ackley, who’d like fireworks to be limited to certain days of the year. Monmouth, like Winslow and Manchester, just up the road, has a fireworks store.
“For years fireworks were banned in this state, and maybe that wasn’t reasonable,” Ackley told Kennebec Journal reporter Craig Crosby. “But to see the pendulum swing all the way to the other side of the spectrum and turn our peaceful, quiet state into the wild west doesn’t make sense.”
Ackley is not proposing fireworks sales be restricted. In turn, the owner of Patriot Fireworks, at Bog Road and U.S. Route 202, agrees that use should be regulated to a point — for instance when there is a high fire danger.
But the 10 days Ackley is proposing they’d be allowed is “kind of extreme” Patriot owner Jay Blais told Crosby.
“What if a kid has a graduation party or there’s a wedding? You lose your right to use something the state and federal government says is legal,” Blais said.
Blais has company — one of the arguments in Fairfield was that only allowing them on certain days would mean people couldn’t celebrate birthdays with fireworks.
They have a point. How did the people of Maine get through some of the most meaningful and poignant moments of life the last several decades without setting off explosives?
Blais points out, correctly, that most of the complaints about fireworks stem from people breaking the state law. There are still restrictions, even though they’re legal.
They can’t be used before 9 a.m. or after 10 p.m. on most days. They can’t be possessed or used by anyone under 21. They can only be used on private property.
Blais said that when these regulations are being violated, local police should be called.
Monmouth, with a population of around 4,000, is lucky enough to be one of the few towns in the area that has a police department.
But what happens in police-free towns that restrict fireworks?
In nearby Wayne, Town Manager Amy Bernard has been dealing with that reality since the town ban was enacted at a town meeting in February.
“The state police and sheriff’s office can’t help you enforce your ban” because they won’t enforce a local ordinance, Bernard said this week. She said it would be difficult for state and county law enforcement to keep track of what each town’s ordinance is, and even if they cited someone, it would be hard to prosecute it.
Department of Public Safety Spokesman Steve McCausland said state police follow up on a fireworks call when they get one, presumably if someone is violating the state restrictions, “but our response will depend on several things, including how close a trooper is to the complainant and the priority of other calls.”
Monmouth may put a proposal for a ban on the Nov. 6 ballot. Selectmen plan a public hearing and more discussion.
Things have quieted down in Wayne since summer started to wind down. Still, Bernard said they expect some noise around Christmas and New Year’s.
She said the good news is most Wayne residents are law abiding and “if there’s an ordinance, they’re going to adhere to it.” Given that, she said, there were still a lot of complaints this summer.
The problem is, when people don’t follow the rules in a town like Wayne, there’s nothing anyone can do.
The guy with 12 Budweisers under his belt who thinks it’s fun to throw the firecracker at the loon is probably going to do it no matter what the restrictions.
Before Jan. 1, it was just a lot harder for him to get the firecracker. Molasses and vat.
Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel and grew up in Augusta. Email her at email@example.com. Kennebec Tales appears the first and third Thursday of the month.