Can anything be done?

Fireworks keep booming and so does the debate; solutions range from legalizing all to an all-out ban

Illegal aerial fireworks light up the sky over Central Maui on New Year’s Day 2015. -- The Maui News file photo

Each new year, the debate arises about fireworks, especially aerials and devices that send thundering booms echoing throughout neighborhoods, even months before the holiday.

And each new year residents, politicians and first responders point to their dangers.

Yet the fireworks go on and the energy to rein them in dries up as the year progresses. The cycle then repeats itself.

Should anything be done? If so, what? Is there any effective solution?

Proposals and reactions from political leaders, first responders and Maui organizations include extremes from completely legalizing fireworks to having them used for cultural purposes only.

Troy Hashimoto

Maui state House Rep. Troy Hashimoto said while he understands the health and safety concerns, “we also have to be practical. Our laws are currently difficult to enforce and reality is that resources for enforcement are finite,” he said.

“Instead, a new method of dealing with fireworks is needed,” he added.

Hashimoto suggested that perhaps all fireworks could be legalized. Aerials and firecrackers would continue to be regulated through permits.

“This will help enforcement by identifying each individual who has possession of dangerous fireworks. Bans could also be issued to those individuals who pose a safety risk or have a history of reckless behavior,” he added.

Fees could be collected, and with all types of fireworks more available, the black market would likely cease to exist, he said.

Illegal fireworks pop and fly over Kahului on New Year’s Day in 2015. Pictures or video of illegal fireworks can be used as evidence in court as long as the witness is willing to testify to the place, date and time that the image or video was taken, according to law enforcement officials. -- The Maui News file photo

“I don’t think the situation with illegal fireworks can get any worse, so there isn’t much we lose in trying a new method of regulation,” Hashimoto said.

At the other extreme, the Maui Fire Department is backing a bill in the state Legislature to limit the use of consumer fireworks for cultural purposes only, said Fire Services Chief Rylan Yatsushiro.

The bill is backed by the State Fire Council, which includes the fire chiefs from all Hawaii fire departments.

Yatsushiro said the department “certainly recognizes and respects cultural celebrations that incorporate fireworks into them.”

Others intend to work with laws on the books.

Gil Keith-Agaran

“We will continue to enforce the law regarding fireworks violations to the best of our ability. The penalty is already pretty severe, with the most serious violation facing a Felony C charge,” said Lt. Gregg Okamoto of the Maui Police Department.

A Class C felony carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Busy night for law enforcement

On Dec. 31 and Jan 1, the Maui Police Department received 86 fireworks-related calls, Okamoto said.

“We can chase calls all night, but with the sheer amount of violations that is not the most effective strategy. Again, we are depending on the community to help take back their neighborhood in this regard,” Okamoto said.

Jerleen Bryant

“Collectively, something has to be done on the importing of illegal fireworks. Everything is brought in by plane or ship, so the ports would have to be monitored, which is the state and federal jurisdiction,” Okamoto said.

But Hashimoto said to thoroughly inspect large volumes of cargo for a twice-yearly occurrence at New Year’s and Fourth of July doesn’t seem to be the best use of resources.

Shipping companies Matson and Young Brothers did not respond to requests for comment.

Maui state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran said his past views on fireworks have not changed. He referred to his comment to The Maui News in 2017, in which he said people can use their smartphones to shoot a video or snap a photo of violators.

Keith-Agaran notes that Maui County Prosecutor J.D. Kim said that a picture or video could be used as evidence in court if the witness testifies to the place, date and time of the video or photo and verifies its contents.

Keith-Agaran had said police do not need to see the lighting of illegal aerials as long as there are witnesses willing to testify. He said that simply increasing penalties “will do nothing for enforcement unless enforcement of the fireworks law is a priority by police and the prosecutor’s office and the community.”

“It may be time, as some people suggest, to revisit our current statewide regulation of fireworks. I’m not sure legalizing and taxing all fireworks is the answer — I’ve heard anecdotally about people who spend thousands of dollars on fireworks, so regulating the use may not reduce the amount of firework use,” Keith-Agaran said.

He wonders if an amended fireworks law would “magically become an enforcement priority” if the law is changed to tax aerials. But Kim said last week that the department needs more “teeth” in the ordinance as a deterrent to selling, as well as possession of the illegal fireworks.

His department would not be in favor of legalizing fireworks: “We would be back where we started with the danger of property damage and injuries.”

Yatsushiro said that severe injuries have been caused by fireworks.

“Aerial fireworks create a fire and shrapnel hazard anywhere within their flight range,” Yatsushiro said.

Over this year’s New Year’s holiday, live and smoldering fireworks caused four of the 12 fire incidents the Fire Department responded to. One incident involved a box of spent fireworks that was burning in a trash chute closet at the Royal Mauian in Kihei.

4-legged sufferers

Fires are not the only impact. The loud booms and lights also affect pets.

“It’s truly terrifying to them,” Jerleen Bryant, Maui Humane Society chief executive officer said. “They don’t understand it. They don’t know where those noises are coming from.

“Who doesn’t love a good fireworks show?” she added. But as someone concerned with animal welfare and a dog owner herself, Bryant said some people “are just showing a complete lack of respect for their neighbors and for the animals on this island.”

She says the barrage of noise that shakes her Wailuku home lasts for days.

The shelter takes in almost 7,000 animals each year, but there is an uptick during New Year’s and Fourth of July, when fireworks appear.

“What we noticed . . . the fireworks started early this year. . . . It was the day after Christmas, we had a lot of calls,” she said.

Between Dec. 24 and Jan. 2, 48 stray dogs were received at the shelter, said Nancy Willis, director of development and community outreach.

As of Thursday, 32 were reclaimed, 10 were adopted and three remain at the shelter.

During the same period, the Humane Society had 57 “lost and found” pet reports. As of Thursday, 41 pets had yet to be reunited with their families, Willis said.

Bryant said that people should not leave their dogs outside, even if they are tied up. She said dogs have chewed through fences they are so frightened by fireworks noise.

She suggested that people see their veterinarians if their animals need help to calm down. She gave her dogs medication, but it didn’t work completely; they still hid under blankets.

The shelter also urges people to have identification on their pets, with or without the threat of fireworks.

Even pets that are routinely kept in the home should have identification, she said, as they could easily run out the door.

“Pets go missing throughout the year. It’s when you least expect it,” Bryant said.

As for illegal fireworks, Bryant said she wish she knew the answer.

But she added: “The solution is our community would be more compassionate and empathetic toward the animals and the people those fireworks are affecting in a negative way.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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