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Illegal fireworks reports rise as holiday nears

You can make it illegal, but that doesn’t mean you can stop it.

Charlottesville and Albemarle County, along with much of the rest of the state, outlaw pretty much any sort of firework that flings, flies, floats, soars, scoots, shoots, bangs, booms or reports but those are exactly the things that residents in the city and county are complaining about.

“Looking at the calls from May 1 to June 30 last year, we had 21 calls about fireworks,” said Capt. Darrell Byers, of the Albemarle County Police Department. “This year we’ve had three times that number.”

Byers said the county police have not made fireworks-related arrests nor have they written citations or confiscated illicit fireworks. He noted that, unlike the city, the county is larger and population centers are more spread out.

For most of Virginia, state law allows only fireworks that do not emit sparks or other burning effects more than about 15 feet; wheels that don’t emit sparks or flame greater than three feet; crackling devices and flashers or strobes that do not emit sparks or other burning effects to a distance more than six feet.

Across the state, illegal fireworks carry a Class 1 misdemeanor tag with a maximum $2,500 fine and a year in jail.

Charlottesville goes beyond the county and state proscriptions with fireworks. According to city ordinance, Charlottesville bans every sort of “firecracker, sparkler, roman candle, fire balloon, signal light, squib, rocket, railroad track or other torpedo, skyrocket, flashlight composition, or other substance or object, of whatever form or construction, that contains any explosive or inflammable compound or substance, and which explodes, rises into the air, travels laterally, or fires projectiles into the air to obtain visible or audible pyrotechnic effects.”

That isn’t making it go away, however. On social media, residents from around the city are complaining of booms, whistles and snaps that keep them awake, frighten their dogs and disturb their peace.

“We’ve experienced a 1,727% [increase] this year over last year,” said Charlottesville Fire Department Deputy Chief Joe Powers, who heads the department’s community risk reduction. “Most complaints come in between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.”

“We have fielded numerous calls and complaints for fireworks violations, and we would like to remind residents that all fireworks, including sparklers, are illegal in the city limits,” Charlottesville police officials said in a prepared statement. “Setting off fireworks not only jeopardizes lives, but can cause significant property damage. Fireworks also sound like gunshots, which can potentially cause trauma for those living in close proximity to the blasts or explosions.”

“My biggest concern in Charlottesville regarding fireworks is the increased exposure to accidental fires and injuries,” said Powers. “Just this past Saturday night, the Charlottesville Fire Department responded to a brush fire on Riverside Avenue [and] soon residents heard fireworks in the street,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are countless news stories across the U.S. where families are losing their homes to accidental fires resulting from fireworks.”

People across the country are dismayed, chagrined and downright annoyed at what seems to be a spike in the detonation of illegal fireworks.

In Boston, Massachusetts, the mayor said complaints of illegal fireworks rose a whopping 2,300% in May compared to the same period in 2019, many of which were reported to police as gunshots that turned out to be firecrackers, bottle rockets and other explosive forms of entertainment.

“We are receiving complaints about a higher than normal use of illegal fireworks,” Alameda County Sheriff’s officials said on their Twitter page. “The repeated loud explosions are concerning for certain members of the community including pets and livestock. There is also danger of fire.”

The booms are keeping New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo up at night.

“You can be in New York City; it sounds like the Wild West at night. Even in Albany, I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t know what has happened,” he said earlier this week during a radio talk program. “I don’t remember a year like this, I really don’t, and I want to understand it better. Anecdotally, I think it’s out of control,” he said.

It’s so bad Cuomo called on the New York State Police to investigate fireworks coming in from other states, specifically Pennsylvania.

The Virginia Fire Marshal’s office notes that it could be a loud holiday because normally permitted displays of fireworks by cities, towns and organizations have been canceled because of the global pandemic and the need to assure social distancing.

“COVED-19 has covered many of our pastimes and traditions with a wet blanket. We anticipate that this Fourth of July, Virginians will take to their own devices to celebrate the holiday in their backyard or neighborhood,” said Michael Reilly, executive director of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. “On top of limited fireworks displays, we’re dealing with limitations in how we assemble. This formula makes celebrating the Fourth of July holiday logistically complicated.”

“Fire officials stress the message of ‘leaving fireworks to the professionals’ because the professionals obtain permits,” said Assistant State Fire Marshal Billy Hux. But with so few professional displays, that message carries little weight, officials said.

In Central Virginia, public fireworks displays from Greene County to Nelson County have been canceled because of the pandemic. Only two displays have received permits in Albemarle County, one for property owned by county developer Wendell Wood, put together by local businessmen and civic influencers and paid for through donations and crowdfunding and one private display at The Boar’s Head.

“The regional fireworks show is going to be something because where it’s located, a lot of people are going to be able to see it all over the city and the county,” said Albemarle County Fire Marshal Howard Lagomarsino. “There won’t be the crowd and social event that normally goes along with fireworks.”

Lagomarsino said he hopes area residents will back off the personal fireworks and be careful if they choose to set it off.

“We’re concerned about injuries and fires,” he said. “We try to take any chance we can to educate people rather than make arrests. We want people to be safe.”


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