Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Stiff penalties await those careless with fireworks

Extremely dry weather and fireworks: a dangerous holiday mix

Express Staff Writer

If people aren't careful, errant fireworks could set fire to bank accounts as well as dry brush over the Fourth of July holiday.

While fireworks may be cheap, the cost to extinguish a substantial brush fire is anything but.

Greg Beaver and Mike Chapman, the fire chiefs for Bellevue and Hailey, respectively, said it costs somewhere between $250 and $300 for every hour an engine and its crew fights a fire, a cost that the party responsible for starting the fire has to pay.

"It's a huge burden," Beaver said.

Chapman agreed: "With a serious fire, you immediately start at six figures," Chapman said. "If it goes for two or three days, it's an easy million."

While both Beaver and Chapman acknowledged the fact that a large number of fireworks will be shot off this holiday week despite the critically dry weather, they asked that everyone use caution and common sense when doing so.

"Any place in Blaine County, if it flies or explodes it's illegal," Chapman said. "If it's not labeled 'safe and sane' it's illegal."

This includes Roman candles, mortar shells, bottle rockets and other fun but not "safe and sane" stuff.

"We'll probably start issuing citations this year to those guys that keep doing it," Hailey Police Chief Brian McNary said Monday.

Complaints about illegal fireworks in the city started pouring into the police department on Sunday and are expected to continue through next weekend.

Sgt. Steve England said nearly 200 complaints were made last year. "You're just running from one call to the other," he said.

McNary said police in the past have normally just confiscated illegal fireworks when they can track down the perpetrators, but finding out who is setting them off can be difficult.

"They usually light them in their backyards, and it's hard for us to tell where they're coming from," the chief said.

Confiscated fireworks are destroyed, McNary said. "We have a very strict policy. We throw them in a box, drown them and throw them away."

In Ketchum, Fire Chief Mike Elle encouraged strict parental supervision of children using fireworks. They should only be used on paved areas. He also urged people to secure their pets during the holiday as animals are sometimes injured or get scared and run away.

Ketchum officials considered a total ban on all fireworks this year, but decided to allow "safe and sane" fireworks as in the past because they feared pushing them into more fire-susceptible areas outside the city. Police and fire officials will be vigilant in looking for illegal fireworks in the city.

"We will have active fire patrols through the weekend with police backup, and we will confiscate and destroy illegal fireworks," Elle said. "Educate and confiscate" is the mantra, he said, adding that if offenders persist they will be cited. Violations are a misdemeanor under city, county and state law and each violation is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $300 fine.

Joe Griffin, Forest Service law enforcement officer with the Ketchum Ranger District, said it is illegal to possess and to discharge fireworks anywhere on Forest Service land. The initial fine is $125. However, a conviction on criminal charges can result in up to six-months behind bars and a $5,000 fine. In the event of a forest fire, a person could be stuck footing the bill for the cost of extinguishing the blaze.

Sun Valley Fire Chief Jeff Carnes and his crew have been patrolling city streets until 1 a.m. each morning.

"After the Trail Creek Fire, I got nervous," Carnes said. "History has taught me that you begin to see fireworks a week before July fourth."

The Sun Valley Fire Department will be out in force on July 4 as well.

"If it flies and it's on fire, don't use it," Carnes said.

"Never in my 34 years with the department have I seen conditions so ripe for destructive-type fires. We have homes up in canyons that are surrounded with sage brush and trees. We have shake roofs and combustible siding. We have access roads that are not safe for fire vehicles, and we have the wind," he said.

Carnes reminded visitors and residents alike that in addition to the danger posed by fireworks, cars present a fire danger as well.

"People really have to be careful this summer," Carnes said. "Pulling off the road into the brush can start a fire. A car's catalytic converter and exhaust pipe get really hot and with the weeds as dry as they are this year, it can be enough to ignite a spark.

"If these conditions continue, we will be in the worst fire season we have ever experienced," Carnes said. "The potential for loss of property is extreme and not to be just laughed at. Do not allow your neighbors to put your property in harm's way. Call 911 if you see any activity that could have potential for a disaster."

The extreme fire danger the area is experiencing has also led Wood River Fire and Rescue Chief Bart Lassman to suspend certain activities requiring permits and inspection in the Wood River Fire Protection District until further notice.

Specifically, Lassman said open burning for silvicultural purposes, such as burning yard waste, and pyrotechnical events have been banned in the fire district for the time being.

The unincorporated district encompasses 150 square miles from south of the Greenhorn Bridge, down to East Magic and running east to west from Gannett to the Blaine County-Camas County line.

Lassman said while burning has been banned in the district, people may still purchase permits, which are good for one year. However, the permits will not be activated until the ban is lifted, which Lassman said depends largely on the weather and whether or not it cools off and the area receives some precipitation.

"With the conditions so dry and hot it is in our best interest to suspend these activities," he said.

For details on the suspension of burning in the Wood River Fire District, call Wood River at 788-5577.

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