Community looks to crackdown on illegal fireworks; meeting held Wednesday

Lack of evidence, authority make it tough to prosecute, search cargo

Community organizer Mahina Martin (from left) of Paepae Maui Nei moderates a town hall meeting on fireworks Tuesday night at Pomaikai Elementary School in Kahului. Panelists included Maui District Airports Manager Marvin Moniz, county Prosecuting Attorney Don Guzman, Maui Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu, Maui Fire Chief David Thyne, state Harbors Maui District Manager Duane Kim and state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation Maui District Manager Paul Sensano. The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

KAHULUI — Fear of loud booms, fireworks debris littering neighbors’ yards and police response to fireworks calls were some of the frustrations residents aired Tuesday night at a town hall meeting discussing fireworks and their impacts on the community.

In what could be a first, officials from the Maui police and fire departments, state airports and harbors and the Maui County Prosecutor’s office gathered at the Pomaikai Elementary School cafeteria in Kahului to address those concerns.

Officials advised residents to contact state lawmakers and council members to toughen laws on both legal and illegal fireworks as well as to continue to call police about fireworks violations and to engage with officers who respond to calls.

Meeting organizers also reported that a bill in the state Legislature was passed Tuesday that would penalize property owners if illegal aerial fireworks are set off from their property. The bill now heads to Gov. David Ige for his signature.

Meeting organizer Mahina Martin of community group Paepae Maui Nei said after the meeting that she is optimistic progress can be made and is thankful for the representation on the panel.

“I’ve listened to concerns that our community’s customs and traditions surrounding fireworks would be jeopardized with any increased enforcement,” she said. “While it’s true that fireworks are generationally part of holiday celebrations for many island families, my own included, what’s important to point out is that it is not part of our customs, traditions or intentions to cause harm to others in our community — especially to the degree and severity of what’s happening right now.

“So I think that anytime we can bring together people of different perspectives, expertise and authority to address a difficult issue and figure out how to move forward, we all win.”

The meeting drew about 40 residents, who submitted questions in writing to the panel but also voiced their points and concerns out loud.

Kahului resident Joe Alexander was frustrated with police response. He said he gets the address of where the illegal fireworks are coming from and calls police.

“There is not one response, no one calls me back. I can (identify) who (is) busting the bombs,” Alexander said, to agreement by some audience members.

Another Kahului resident Linda Puppolo says her 89-year-old mother-in-law is on edge from Thanksgiving until January because of the loud booms of illegal fireworks or homemade bomb-type devices.

“My neighborhood is like a war zone,” Puppolo said.

Another woman complained about neighbors’ fireworks ending up in her yard and on her roof.

Maui Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu told the meeting goers: “Please call us” for fireworks violations.

He urged residents to allow police officers to contact them for follow-ups after the initial call to dispatch, so officers can better pursue the case.

“Please take the time,” he said.

Even if residents do not want to identify their own neighbors as the culprits, Faaumu said police will try and assist in any way.

“We will do whatever to help you,” he said.

As for Alexander’s case, Faaumu said he wasn’t sure what happened, but added, “what I ask you is to please continue to call.”

Faaumu said the department overlaps shifts of police officers during holidays, such as New Year’s and also speaks to its staff.

“We encourage our patrol officers to be out on the road and patrol the neighborhoods a lot,” Faaumu said.

Faaumu added that he wasn’t making any excuses, but said police have other issues besides fireworks during the holidays, which include keeping highways safe and handling domestic issues calls arising from families getting together or people over-celebrating.

Faaumu said if police get tips on who is bringing in illegal fireworks, their investigative section will follow up and work with the Prosecutor’s Office.

Asked when the last major illegal fireworks bust was made, Faaumu said he cannot remember exact dates but that it occurred when he was a young officer. He remembered loading up fireworks to be taken into evidence.

Maui County Prosecutor Don Guzman said it is difficult to bring up fireworks cases because many times there is not enough evidence. An eyewitness is needed, and attorneys need to prove who lit the fireworks.

He said the new bill in the Legislature will help and added that “laws need to be changed.”

He encouraged the community to take a stand.

Maui County Fire Chief David Thyne said firefighters only can go out and enforce the laws already on the books and that the department is more of the “reactive agency” that puts out the fires.

The Fire Department oversees legal commercial fireworks, such as those sold in stores, as well as other permits for fireworks shows and firecracker permits for the public, Thyne said. Firefighters also do inspections.

Thyne said an assistant chief noted that “we don’t have a problem with those following the laws, it’s those that don’t.”

But if the Fire Department does get a complaint about illegal fireworks, they will follow up on it. The Fire Prevention Bureau may work on a case and also work with authorities.

“We have had that happen, although it has been infrequent. There has been containers that have been seized, if you will,” Thyne said, though “not as often” as one would hope.

Thyne said it is difficult to establish a chain of evidence, as well as sources of the shipping.

He said the state Legislature, including South Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger, has been working hard to try and curb illegal fireworks. Wildberger’s office said Wednesday that the representative introduced a measure to increase detection for fireworks and invasive species, but it did not get a hearing.

Maui Harbors District Manager Duane Kim said at the meeting that the state does not have the authority to search shipping containers, but the containers are inspected by various entities at ports.

He pointed out that 98 percent of goods to Hawaii are imported and that more than 80 percent are on ocean vessels.

Outside the meeting, Kim said that if need be, agricultural items are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and hazardous items are inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard at Maui’s ports. If foreign material arrives and Maui is the first port, then the federal customs authorities will inspect it.

He said during the meeting that items in containers need to be manifested no matter where they are coming from. And if illegal fireworks are being brought in, no one, of course, is documenting it.

Kim said that the state takes seriously its duty to protect the harbors, including keeping them safe from fire that could result because of illegal fireworks being shipped. He said if a fire breaks out, it could mean closing the ports so “nothing comes in and goes out of Maui.”

At Maui County’s airports, Maui Airports District Manager Marvin Moniz said Transportation Security Administration has the authority to search for illegal items on flights.

But the airports are concerned about illegal aerial fireworks being shot up in the sky, posing a risk to pilots. The fireworks could affect planes coming in from the Maalaea approach and departures in the Paia and Kanaha end of the airport.

Moniz said airport police patrol areas around the airport during the holidays to ensure fireworks are not being set off close by.

Paul Sensano, the Maui district manager of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, knows that there are illegal fireworks and other items being brought in over the water, and that people are creative when driven by money.

But without probable cause, state officials can’t just ask a boater for an inspection, he said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@maui news.com.