Midcoast fire chiefs are generally not in favor of a bill now generating debate across the state to loosen consumer prohibitions on fireworks, such as firecrackers, torpedoes, skyrockets, Roman candles, bombs, rockets, wheels and other fireworks.

The proposed legislation, LD 83, “An Act To Legalize the Sale, Possession and Use of Fireworks,” has been referred to the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, and on Dec. 7, a public hearing on it was held in Augusta. It now faces time in committee work sessions. The bill allows broader use of fireworks in Maine by the general public. Current law specifically permits consumer use of sparklers without magnesium, chlorates or perchlorate, and plastic and paper caps.

In 2007, the Maine State Fire Marshal wrote in a summer newsletter: “Sparklers, legal in Maine, were third among the type of fireworks causing most injuries. This is not surprising when you consider the fact that sparklers burn at temperatures that may exceed 1,200 degrees Farenheit. It is worth noting that only 2 percent of injuries occurred as a result of a public display of fireworks. The kind of show in which professionals are licensed and must qualify by taking an exam before conducting such an exhibit in Maine. The slogan regarding “safe and sane” fireworks is an advertising trick designed to diminish an individual’s fear of something going wrong with fireworks. The sad fact is, however, that things do go wrong and they go wrong fast. Unfortunately, the damage inflicted doesn’t go away as fast. Statistically, the more people play with fireworks, as opposed to letting professionals handle them, the greater the odd are that someone will be hurt. Only five states have banned all fireworks.”

While they acknowledged the need for increased revenues for state coffers, local fire chiefs said the potential income projected by sponsors of LD 83 would not offset the added costs of personal injury and fire that would result from more access to fireworks.

Union Fire Chief Barry W. Norris said he previously worked for the state, stopping those who were crossing into Maine with fireworks purchased in New Hampshire.

“That happened in the 1980s and 1990s because of people being injured,” said Norris. “I’ve seen kids get their hands blown off and their eyes put out. I’ve seen kids burned with sparklers that are legal in the state of Maine.”

Norris said it would be hard to pick and choose which types of fireworks to legalize and which would remain prohibited. Recent negative reaction to LD 83 has prompted the LePage administration to propose limiting legalization to a selected list of incendiaries, rather than all of those allowed under federal law.

“In New Hampshire it’s legal to sell and possess fireworks, but not to use them,” Norris said. He said he was recently with a licensed fireworks technician, who was asked by a legislator for an opinion on the bill.

“He estimated there was about $2 million in illegal fireworks in the state right now,” said Norris. “At 25 percent [estimated income to the state from fees and taxes], it’s $500,000 to go to the general fund. Is that worth somebody’s medical bills?”

“There are 400-plus fire departments in Maine,” he said. “There’s not enough money to train people.”

Norris was referring to a provision in the proposed law that would use some of the revenue from fireworks taxes and fees to train firefighters so that they could, in turn, train private citizens in the safe use of the incendiaries.

“Who’s going to train the firefighters,” he asked.

“Inexperienced people could do a lot of damage to themselves,” said Friendship Fire Chief Kyle Martin. “Fireworks should be set off by professionals. We have responded to forest fires where fireworks have been set off. It gets expensive really quick.”

Martin said sparks from fireworks could land on roofs and in gutters where pine needles accumulate and quickly spread, without the knowledge of the person setting them off.

“We’ve had several fires down here that were caused by fireworks,” said Owls Head Fire Chief Frank Ross. “People were setting fireworks off and they got into the woods or the high grass.”

He said the revenue projected from the change would not be worth “the expense of someone’s fingers.”

Almost 30 percent of fireworks-related injuries are to hands or fingers, and 20 percent involve eyes. Two out of every five people injured by fireworks in 2008 were under the age of 15, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Rockport Fire Chief Bruce Woodward agreed with Ross.

“I think the law should remain the way it is,” he said, citing the risk of injury.

Norris said the use of fireworks around the Fourth of July wasn’t a major concern, but that legalizing the incendiaries in the state would create a year-round hazard. An increase in general fund revenues did not balance that greater potential of injury and fires all year long.

“We’re shooting from the hip to try to get money into the general fund,” said Norris.

Hope Fire Chief Clarence Keller agreed.

“I think the bad outweighs the good here,” said Keller. “I support keeping things the way they are. “It’s not worth the trade off for what we might see in revenue.”

Currently, the only fireworks Mainers may legally possess and use are sparklers, including morning glories, and paper and plastic caps, unless that person has been issued a permit. “In addition, no person may sell fireworks, or possess fireworks with the intent to sell or offer for sale, with the exception to this law being paper and plastic caps and sparklers,” the law states.

Keller was joined by Norris and Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley in expressing disappointment that the state fire marshal was not permitted to testify at a recent hearing on LD 83. Farley said he joined other Maine fire chiefs and the Maine State Federation of Firefighters in opposing the legalization of fireworks.

Appleton Fire Chief David Stone disagreed with those calling for the law to remain unchanged. Stone said allowing fireworks to be bought and sold in Maine is a good idea

“It’s good for the economy,” he said. “Legalize it, tax it. People are already bringing them up here anyway.” He said the state would receive more revenue from taxing sales of fireworks than it does from fining those who own or use them illegally.

Stone, who has never responded to an incident that was caused by misuse of fireworks, said people needed to take responsibility for their own actions and that he was not concerned about a potential increase in injuries or fires.

“They’re going to get injured either way,” he said. “People get hurt going out to get their mail.”

“The government shouldn’t be standing telling them they can’t do it when 39 other states are allowing it,” he said.

For more information on Maine’s current law in regards to fireworks, contact the State Fire Marshal’s Office at 287-3473. The proposed bill can be tracked at mainelegislature.org/legis/bills/bills_125th/billtexts/HP007101.asp.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.