Opinion

Keep decisions on fireworks local

Cities and counties make their own laws all the time. What makes cities and counties in this case unqualified to determine what their constituents want and how to best address it?

A state senate committee is scheduled to consider a bill that will ensure that fireworks may be set off anywhere in the state on Independence Day. The legislation also forbids local rules restricting where retailers may sell fireworks. Many Iowa congressmen and senators state there is nothing more patriotic than celebrating July 4 by lighting off fireworks. Obviously many cities and counties are opposing the bill.

We (Washington City Council among many other city governments in the area) have already spent months going through this. The council heard from people on both sides of the argument while trying to decide if fireworks should be allowed in the city or not.

For those who don’t know, in 2017 the state approved a surprise law about mid-June making fireworks sale and use legal in Iowa. The law was approved so close to Independence Day cities did not have time to draft ordinances regarding firework use. As expected, that first year people in Washington went nuts, setting off loads of fireworks. The city council regularly received reports of hundreds of rockets being shot off over people’s houses, one person was hospitalized with a head injury that year, and two fires in the county were probably started with the use of fireworks. I wonder where those amateur pyrotechnicians got the money for all those fireworks they lit off.

On Oct. 3, 2017, the city council approved ordinance 1069 amending the fireworks permit codes. The ordinance says no person shall discharge consumer grade fireworks on dates other than from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. July 3 and from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 4. Fireworks can also be shot from 9 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Dec. 31 through Jan. 1. People are also required to limit these activities to their own property. Since fireworks are associated with Independence Day and New Year’s, we can do that. Some years the New Year’s shooting has become moot, as shooting off fireworks in minus-10 degree weather is just no fun. The ordinance was not passed unanimously, by the way, as some council members believed there should be a total ban.

Likewise, other cities also passed laws based on what the people in town felt were needed. I believe both Kalona and Wellman flat-out banned the use of fireworks. This sounds a lot more harsh than it is. In both cities a five-minute drive in any direction will put someone in the country where there are no restrictions on firework use. As an aside, firework bans are in place in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.

The point is those councils worked long and hard to come up with those ordinances. They heard from the people who would be impacted by whatever law they approved. They heard from safety professionals. In Washington, both speakers and city council members described seeing veterans who were terrified as the fireworks were going off. People brought in burned remnants of fireworks that had landed on their houses. Others made the argument that responsible use of fireworks should be allowed. In the end the council, which represents the people of the area, made the decision. Why is this not good enough?

Personally, I’m not a fan of seeing responsible fireworks users punished for the actions of the irresponsible. At the same time, I am very aware of the safety risk fireworks create. The state originally banned the sales of most explosive fireworks after two incidents involving property damage. In 1931, five blocks of Spencer’s business district were destroyed after a boy dropped a lit sparkler into a fireworks display. The incident resulted in 25 buildings being lost and 50 more damaged. On July 4, 1936, a girl dropped a sparkler on a pile of gasoline-soaked rags in a garage, which ended up destroying 20 businesses. Closer to home, on July 4, 2016, a 20-foot by 25-foot hole was burned in the roof of the Keota Middle School gym. The state fire marshal ruled the fire was caused by fireworks.

For those who enjoy celebrating Independence Day with a good firework show like I do, I recommend Shiloh (if they have it again this year) or, believe it or not, Coppock. Those firework shows are not to be missed. Also, don’t forget to be careful if lighting off some of your own fireworks.

People who feel decisions about firework use should be left local, where the lawmakers have more knowledge of local issues, rather than people in Des Moines who may or may not have ever even visited the area can email:

Rep. Jarad Klein at jarad.klein@legis.iowa.gov; Sen. Kevin Kinney at www.senate.iowa.gov/senator/kinney/contact; Sen. Rich Taylor at www.senate.iowa.gov/senator/taylor/contact; or Rep. Joe Mitchell at Joe.Mitchell@legis.iowa.gov.