When the Maine Legislature legalized consumer fireworks nearly a year ago, many residents predicted the worst: devastating fires, mortal injuries and sleepless nights.
One year later, the verdict is in: So far so good.
That’s the assessment of Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, who oversees the retail fireworks industry in Maine. Taylor, who has collected preliminary data on the state’s first year of fireworks, said there were 19 fireworks-related injuries and few fires in 2012. There are still more data to collect, but Taylor will not recommend any changes to the law when he presents his first annual report on fireworks to the Legislature early next year.
Meanwhile, after an initial boom in sales last summer, consumers’ appetite for fireworks seemingly has cooled, according to the state’s largest fireworks retailer.
‘I’d say we’re happy’
At the start of 2012, fireworks were legal in Maine, but there was no place to buy them. Stringent building codes delayed retailers’ entry into the emerging market. However, by springtime fireworks stores began cropping up throughout the state and business was suddenly brisk. Today there are 16 fireworks stores and another will be licensed soon, Taylor said.
As the availability of fireworks rose, so did the number of noise complaints. In June and early July, many police departments were swamped with calls as municipal leaders struggled to find a balance between residents’ right to use fireworks and their right to peace and quiet, as is afforded by local noise ordinances.
After the Fourth of July, however, fireworks-related complaints tapered off significantly. Police in Waterville and Winslow, for instance, saw reports drop from as many as eight per day to zero.
As part of the law, the fire marshal’s office is required to present an annual report on consumer fireworks to the Legislature. The report isn’t complete, but Taylor said the preliminary data are encouraging.
“Overall, I’d say we’re happy,” he said.
Taylor’s report will be compiled from data provided by hospitals and municipal fire departments, which are required to file fireworks-related incident reports to the state.
The injury reports contain medical providers’ assessments in four categories: the severity of injury, the areas of the body that were injured, the reason for the accident and the type of device that was used. The severity of the injury is broken into three categories: minor, moderate and significant. Minor injuries are defined as first-degree burns, minor cuts or stitches. Moderate injuries are second-degree burns, lacerations or broken bones. Significant injuries are third-degree burns, partial or total loss of digits, hearing or sight, Taylor said.
In 2012, there were 19 injuries, four of which were significant, Taylor said.
Of the 19 injuries, the majority were caused by stationary fireworks, such as mortar tubes. Stationary fireworks do not include handheld fireworks such as sparklers or firecrackers. In most cases, human error or failure to follow instructions — not malfunction — caused the injury, Taylor said.
Fire data won’t be complete until summer, because municipal fire departments aren’t required to file their reports until the end of July, Taylor said. Nonetheless, the fire marshal’s office has received some reports of fireworks-related blazes, most of which were minor brush fires, he said.
When data are available, Taylor will be able to set a dollar amount on total fireworks-related fire damage for 2012.
“Based on what I’ve seen so far, it would be pretty minute,” he said.
Two of the year’s worst fireworks-related fires — an apartment fire in Portland and a deck fire in Old Orchard Beach — were caused by handheld sparklers, which were legal in Maine before the 2012 law.
In Augusta, where the use and sale of fireworks is banned, the Fire Department responded to six fireworks-related calls in 2012, Fire Chief Roger Audette said. Five calls were for grass fires. Another fire call was caused by someone setting off fireworks in the hallway of an apartment building, he said.
In the most significant event, firefighters spent almost two hours dousing a half-acre brush fire caused by a juvenile.
“They certainly could have been a lot worse,” Audette said of the fires. “They were near misses, as I call them.”
Fairfield Fire Chief Duane Bickford said his department responded to two minor grass fires in Shawmut and Benton that were ignited by fireworks.
Despite the calls, Bickford is ambivalent toward fireworks.
“It’s an individual choice, as long as you’re not disturbing your neighbors,” he said. “They’re like anything else. If you use them responsibly, they’re OK.”
In Indiana, where consumer fireworks were legalized in 2005, the effect has been minimal, said Indiana State Fire Marshal Jim Greeson.
“It’s not what I would call a major problem or a concern,” he said.
According to data from Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security, there have been more than 60 fireworks-related fires per year in that state during the last five years, with the highest number at 86 in 2010. Those fires ranged from grass fires to structure fires.
Indiana’s population is 6.5 million, nearly five times Maine’s population of 1.3 million.
‘A very safe year’
Overall, fireworks sales were strong in 2012, according to Steve Marson, the owner of five retail fireworks stores in Maine. Business is so good that he plans to open two more Pyro City Maine stores next year — one in southern Maine and another in either Piscataquis County or Somerset County.
The passing of summer, however, has caused a dip in sales.
“Fourth of July and Labor Day were very big for us, but in October sales started dropping right off,” he said.
Marson said he’s in the midst of an advertising blitz to juice sales for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He also hopes wintertime use will pick up once people realize fireworks’ colors are doubly bright when exploding over a reflective blanket of snow.
In the meantime, four of his stores have shifted to winter hours until April and he reduced his staff by almost half. At the high point, the company employed 41 full-time workers in the retail stores and offices — many of whom were college students — but now he’s down to 22 full-time employees, he said.
Still, Marson said his business has been a boost to local economies. He said his employees earn a starting wage of $9.50 an hour; and they receive two weeks paid vacation, five paid personal days, and a clothing allowance. The company also pays 50 percent of employee’s health insurance premiums, he said.
“We’re a small business that is giving benefits to people. There are a lot of small businesses out there that can’t afford that or wouldn’t even think of doing that,” he said.
Marson said he’s also proud that Maine had relatively few injuries and fires during its first year with fireworks.
“It my opinion, it was a very safe year,” he said. “Everybody said the world was going to come to an end on July 4 — that everyone in Maine was going to be burned — but on July 5, (the media) didn’t have anything to write about.”
Ben McCanna — 861-9239