Police: Aerial fireworks are dangerous and hard to stop

While most Maui County residents will be playing with sparklers, fountains and TNT Ground Bloom Flowers this New Year’s Eve and early New Year’s Day, some already have been firing illegal aerial fireworks into the Maui sky and have caught the eye of police and fire officials.

Capt. Paul Haake of the Maui Fire Prevention Bureau could not recall any specific complaints or fires due to aerial fireworks as of Monday afternoon but said he already has seen some set off outside his house – illegally.

“If you play with fire you’re going to get burned,” he said. “And that’s basically what we do, we’re playing with fire.”

Those booming aerial fireworks that can soar more than 100 feet in the air before exploding, with brand names such as Skyrockets and Artillery shells, are legal in 24 states, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. Special permits are required in some of those states.

On Maui, users need a permit, and all of those permits have been obtained by professional-level, licensed fireworks shows, Haake indicated. So those aerials being shot off in neighborhoods around the island are illegal.

“You need to be properly trained and licensed because it is an explosive device,” Haake said, noting that the permit requires licensing and the approval of his bureau. “Clearance space needs to be provided.”

Shells can range from 1 to 10 inches and the standard clearance space for aerial fireworks is 70 feet per shell inch, Haake said, meaning that a 6-inch shell would require a radius clearance of at least 420 feet.

“That’s so you’re protected from any misfire or any fallout from the use of the shell,” he said. “(Some people) will have their family members right there watching, and I don’t think they realize how dangerous it is, and they’ve been known to cause fires.

“Last year, there was a structure fire, and we believe it to be from an aerial.”

Last New Year’s Eve, a 600-square-foot cottage in Kahului was destroyed with an estimated $152,000 in damage. A neighboring home also suffered $25,000 in damage.

“The fire started on the roof of the structure, and there wasn’t any other cause to explain why,” Haake said. “We couldn’t exactly prove that it was aerial fireworks, but by eliminating everything else we could not eliminate it.”

A 23-year-veteran of the Fire Department, Haake has spent the past 11 years with the bureau and said that cracking down on aerial fireworks is “really difficult.”

“We have to actually see the people lighting it off,” he said. “We’ll see one go off and go there and see a circle of 20 people and we’ll say, ‘Whose fireworks were those?’ And they just look at you.”

Officer Edith Quintero, Maui Police Department spokeswoman, said that patrol officers will be enforcing the 9 p.m. New Year’s Eve to 1 a.m. New Year’s Day times for use of approved fireworks – though she, too, has witnessed the launching of some aerial fireworks near her home.

“I see it in my neighborhood, and it is kind of hard to pinpoint where it’s coming from,” she said. “We realize that there will be lots of calls, especially after 1 a.m.”

Most of the aerial fireworks offenders are Maui residents, Haake said, adding that the majority of them ship the fireworks in from the Mainland and other countries. He said shipping companies notify the Fire Department of containers holding fireworks, and the owners of the fireworks are investigated to make sure they are properly permitted and licensed.

“They try their best to notify us, but with the holiday season there’s always so much coming in,” he said of the shippers.

Michael Ohashi, general manager of shipper Horizon Lines’ Honolulu office, said that he has not seen any fireworks shipments to Maui this year. If fireworks were discovered in shipments, the company, which ships interisland and from the West Coast, would notify the U.S. Coast Guard and the Fire Department.

Haake recalled being notified of a shipment three years ago, where fire officials confiscated hundreds of illegal fireworks from an Maui resident without a permit.

“It could probably fill half of a 40-foot container, packed all the way to the top,” he said. “We went after him and took his stuff off the street.

“I don’t think he’ll be selling any fireworks anymore.”

Both the fire and police departments plan to have extra staff on duty tonight, with Haake adding jokingly that practically every firefighter will be on-call.

As of Monday, the bureau had sold about 200 permits, which allow the permit-holder to purchase of up to 5,000 firecrackers per permit. Haake estimates that there is enough firecracker inventory on Maui for more than 600 permits.

The deadline for obtaining firecracker permits is today. Residents may get their permits from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the bureau’s office at 313 Manea Place, off Waiko Road; and the county parks permit offices at the Lahaina Civic Center and on Molokai.

For those looking to play with legal fireworks, Haake advises parents to supervise their children and to stay within the approved times. He added that the “best way to stay safe is to not use fireworks at all” and to consider “leaving fireworks to the professionals.”

Those professionals will be putting on fireworks displays in the water fronting the Grand Wailea and the Four Seasons Resort Lana’i at Manele Bay beginning at midnight.

The National Parks Service reminds residents that fireworks are prohibited in national parks, including Haleakala National Park.

Maui Electric Co. advises fireworks users to stay away from overhead power lines. The company also asks that residents not string fireworks on utility poles and asks people to maintain a 10-foot clearance from power lines when using ladders or other tools to string fireworks.

If objects do get tangled in overhead power lines, residents are advised call MECO and to not try to free objects. The numbers are 871-7777 on Maui or toll free on Molokai or Lanai at (877) 871-8461.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.