FARMINGTON — Sgt. Ken Grimes is worried a public statement about a homemade explosive detonated recently in Farmington sent the wrong message.

It described the explosive as being made of paper products — consistent with homemade fireworks — but failed to explain the differences between fireworks and illegal homemade explosives, according to Grimes, of the fire marshal’s office.

The confusion surfaced just days after a new law made the sale and personal use of fireworks legal in Maine, leaving Grimes questioning what people actually know about the legality of explosives.

“Even though the fireworks law passed, it’s still illegal to make an explosive device,” he said.

The initial statement, released in an email from the Department of Public Safety, was based on Grimes’ comments about his office’s investigation of the incident, in which a homemade explosive was detonated on a remote farm road two weeks ago in Farmington.

But Grimes said the statement was misleading for people who are unfamiliar with the language used to describe illegal explosives.

“I’m a little hesitant to say that this is a fireworks issue because we are still looking at it as an improvised explosive device,” he said.

Legal consumer fireworks are made by professionals who follow a permitting process, and when someone deviates from that definition in any way they are breaking the law, Grimes said.

No one was hurt in the Farmington explosion along a stretch of farm pastures on Bailey Hill Road on Jan. 2. But whoever is behind the incident faces criminal charges, and investigators continued last week to seek new leads in hopes of making an arrest in the case, Grimes said.

The legal penalties for building, possessing or using homemade explosives vary depending on many factors. Investigators look at the design, explosive power, what the device is used for and other aspects of the crime to determine what charges are appropriate, Grimes said.

There are separate state and federal laws that apply to crimes involving explosives, with penalties that can range from a $500 fine up to thousands of dollars in fines and lengthy prison sentences, according to Grimes and a federal law enforcement official.

Although the investigation is not complete, it appears the Farmington incident falls under the illegal use of explosives, Grimes said.

Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office has always been opposed to legalizing fireworks, according to Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst for the agency.

The biggest reason was a safety issue — people without proper training would be allowed to handle fireworks, Taylor said.

The other issue the agency had with making fireworks legal tied into the history of problems with homemade explosives, he said.

Taylor said his office raised these concerns during the lengthy debate over legalizing fireworks, submitting reports and data for several years before the new law was passed.

People use other legal materials to build homemade explosives, but putting fireworks on the market gives them even more options, he said.

Taylor said the fact that people will take apart a firework and mixing it with other materials to make a more powerful homemade explosive a constant concern.

He said if explosive materials are more available, “then there is a higher probability for its usage.”

There is no expertise

The fire marshal’s office responded to 54 complaints involving homemade explosives in the last two years, according to data from the agency.

A majority of those cases were homemade bombs classified as overpressure devices, which typically consist of volatile chemicals contained in a plastic bottle or other container.

An overpressure device — a chemical mixture in a Gatorade bottle — was used in the bombing at the Occupy Maine camp in Portland in October, police said.

Joseph Thomas, assistant state fire marshal, last week described the overpressure devices as something most commonly used in pranks, such as blowing up mailboxes.

There are also cases of improvised explosive devices, a wide-ranging description for a variety of designs that use explosive materials.

Some are classified as a pipe bomb because of their hard-case designs. Other examples include those classified as a pyrotechnic device because they use paper products and certain other materials, according to Grimes.

Any explosive not produced by a licensed professional is considered by law enforcement to be an illegal device that can be used to hurt others, intentionally or otherwise, he said.

Grimes would not describe the materials used in the device that detonated in Farmington or discuss other details of the investigation. Investigators believe whoever is behind the incident was not targeting any specific people or property, he said.

According to police reports about the explosion, a woman who lives on Bailey Hill Road was on her porch when she heard voices in the distance, followed by a loud explosion around 8:30 p.m.

The woman, who was not identified by police, followed a car driving away after the explosion and saw a small item that appeared to be on fire thrown from the car, police said. The Maine State Police bomb squad was called to remove the device from the road.

Debris from the first device was collected at the scene and analyzed at the Portland office of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. As of last week, some of the debris was still being analyzed at the national bureau lab in Maryland in an attempt to identify certain explosive materials, Grimes said.

Investigators are also looking for leads from the public and asked for people to call the Farmington Police Department at 778-6311.

Farmington is not among the several communities statewide that have passed local ordinances banning fireworks.

David Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]

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