A new opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office contradicts the commonly understood status quo for fireworks in Idaho, the latest in an argument over individual rights versus the damage caused by fires.
The opinion by Paul Panther, chief of the AG’s criminal law division, and a subsequent email say that only people with a permit to put on a fireworks display — such as the one planned next week for Expo Idaho — can buy aerial fireworks in this state. Retailers can not purchase them and cannot resell them, Panther wrote.
The standing interpretation of Idaho’s fireworks law is that aerial fireworks, or others deemed not to be “safe and sane,” can be sold within the state but can’t be used here. Private parties buying such fireworks would be under no obligation to sign a waiver promising not to use the fireworks within this state, another commonly believed requirement. That, however, assumes that it is legal for them to buy such fireworks in the first place.
The Boise Fire Department circulated the opinion and email in a news release Tuesday. Panther was responding to questions from state Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, who sponsored a bill this spring that would have closed the purchasing loophole. The bill failed to get a full hearing.
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Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan and the Idaho Fire Chiefs Association argue aerial fireworks are set off here anyway and cause problems like last year’s Table Rock Fire, which burned 2,500 acres in the Boise Foothills and consumed one home.
Doan championed Erpelding’s bill and has long been an outspoken opponent of aerial fireworks, which he referred to as “illegal fireworks” at a press conference on Tuesday.
“It sounds so weird to say we need to stop illegal fireworks because they’re already illegal,” he said.
Boise municipal code already outlaws the sale and use of “dangerous” fireworks within city limits. State law addresses permits for public displays, as well as authorized dates for general sale and use.
Most public lands agencies also ban the use of all fireworks on their property during the summer months, when wildfires are a risk. Ada County took such a step Tuesday morning for areas of the county that aren’t in a city or a fire protection district.
Doan said he’s confident that cracking down on the sale of aerial fireworks will cut the number of human-caused wildfires in the Treasure Valley.
The Statesman Tuesday morning contacted management at Fat City Fireworks and Rocky Mountain Fur & Fireworks, two year-round sellers in the Boise area. Management at both stores said they currently have aerial fireworks for sale. Neither had heard about the AG’s opinion.
Doan said the timing of the opinion a week prior to the Fourth of July was, in some ways, beneficial. However, he said, “I wish retailers and wholesalers could have had more time to react” and remove the contested items from their shelves.
According to Doan, law enforcement and fire officials plan to “work with and educate” retailers to get aerial fireworks off the shelves, though the details of that effort weren’t immediately clear. Following that campaign, Doan said, responses will be different across the state.
Caution seemed to be the prevailing reaction Tuesday. In a statement, the Ada County Sheriff’s Office said it wasn’t clear if the opinion’s conclusions were enforceable, nor whether permits are necessary for members of the public who want to buy aerial fireworks.
Currently, setting off “illegal” fireworks is a misdemeanor. Selling them is only an infraction. It’s not clear whether the AG’s opinion could lead to any sort of adjustment in those penalties.
“I think the wholesalers and retailers need to be understanding that if they were to sell to somebody and something bad happens, they could be held accountable,” Doan said.
Jake Smith, manager at Rocky Mountain Fireworks, said his business would cross that bridge should things come to it. In the meantime, Jake’s father-in-law, the owner of Rocky Mountain, was looking over the AG’s opinion with the business’ attorney.
Smith said the significance of the opinion still seemed a bit vague to him, particularly because no actual changes were made to Idaho law. He likened outlawing fireworks to placing restrictions on things like electricity or bicycles, which he argued are responsible for injuries or fires.
“This legislation wasn’t passed last (session), and now it seems ironic that this opinion comes out before the Fourth of July,” Smith said. “It’s tough for me to just swallow, that this is his opinion and we have to follow it.”
Fat City managers were also consulting their attorney Tuesday. That evening, they declined further comment.
Doan on Tuesday morning said he expected pushback from retailers. But, he thinks community members will be happy with the decision.
“The community has been very supportive this entire time,” he said. “People with autistic children, people with pets, people with PTSD — they’re just tired of a war zone in this city and in this county.”