Use caution with New Year’s fireworks

As in years past, the sky over Kenai will likely be lit with fireworks as 2016 ends on Saturday night. The cheerful boom and sparkle may be echoed elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula, but in most other locations it will be done illegally.

Alaska statute imposes licensing requirements on firework sales, and allows cities and boroughs to restrict firework use. The Kenai Peninsula Borough forbids the personal use and sale of fireworks in its jurisdiction outside cities. Homer forbids fireworks, except for permitted public displays. Soldotna code imposes a $100 fine for using or possessing fireworks in a city park, and a Soldotna Police Department representative said they are prohibited elsewhere in the city. In 2001, Kenai also passed an ordinance to prohibit private fireworks displays, though in 2015 the Kenai city council voted for a 48-hour exception to this rule, allowing fireworks from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1.

At their June 17, 2015 meeting, the Kenai city council passed an ordinance introduced by then-council members Ryan Marquis and Terry Bookey to make legal the New Year’s fireworks the sponsors said happened regularly in spite of city code.

The ordinance states that “despite the prohibition, personal and private use of fireworks is common within the City during New Year celebrations and is part of long-standing tradition,” and that “as opposed to making a common and longstanding practice a violation of law, it is in the City’s best interest to allow limited personal and private use of salable fireworks for two days each year during the New Year celebration.” The ordinance passed with council member Tim Navarre voting against it.

At the time of the ordinance Bookey said he requested from the city administration a five-year review of code citations and complaints related to fireworks. Complaints, he said, had been minimal, and citations non-existent.

“For a couple of reasons,” Bookey said. “One, by the time officers were able to respond to the area, there was nobody there to make contact with. Two, it’s pretty low priority with all of the other things that are going on. It was one of those deals were people are doing it, the code as it was wasn’t being enforced to penalize people for it, there wasn’t much complaint associated with it, and the fire department had no reports of injuries or fires.”

Bookey is no longer a Kenai Council member, having declined to run for re-election this October, but continues to work as a captain in the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Central Emergency Service (CES), which provides fire response and rescue outside the jurisdiction of city fire departments. He said he doesn’t know of CES responding to any fires caused by New Year’s fireworks.

Kenai Fire Marshal Tommy Carver said the risk of fireworks setting fires with snow on the ground is low, but still present. The low probability of a fire spreading in winter makes fireworks more of a private than a public safety risk.

“Houses can still catch on fire, trees can still catch on fire,” Carver said. “We don’t have the exposed undergrowth like we do in the summertime, or the temperatures, so the danger of it spreading in the winter is much less than in the summertime. But the fires can still occur — it’s just a lot less likely.”

Getting a hold of fireworks to shoot off on New Year’s may be the biggest obstacle for Kenai’s amateur pyrotechnicians. Selling fireworks in Alaska requires a license from the Department of Public Safety, which according to its website has permitted 24 fireworks retailers — the closest to Kenai are in Houston and Valdez — and 12 fireworks wholesalers.

“I don’t know of anywhere locally you can get them, but I do know people go to the Palmer-Wasilla area and get them,” Carver said.

Fire danger aside, Carver said fireworks users should keep other risks in mind.

“I think our biggest threat is going to be personal safety,” Carver said. “I’ve seen people launch fireworks from their hands, people allowing their kids to play with fireworks — those are always significant dangers. … Don’t aim them at people, don’t aim them at populated areas. Don’t aim them at pets, because some people do that. Just use them per the manufacturer’s recommendations, and everything should be fine.”

 

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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