Boise fire chief wants to make illegal fireworks truly illegal

Scenes from the east flank of the Boise Table Rock fire

The Boise Foothills fire burns near the Morningside Heights subdivision in June 2016.
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The Boise Foothills fire burns near the Morningside Heights subdivision in June 2016.

If you want to get Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan fired up, ask him to walk you through Idaho’s fireworks laws.

“In Idaho it is legal to buy illegal fireworks as long as you sign an affidavit that you will not shoot them off in Idaho — and that is absolutely ludicrous.”

While it isn’t yet known what kind of fireworks started Thursday’s wildfire in the Boise Foothills, they’ve been implicated as the cause of the 2,500-acre fire that destroyed one home and a shed. Fire crews were able to quickly contain the fire and crews are now cleaning up, watching for hotspots and putting together rehabilitation plans.

Fireworks caused more than 350 fires in Idaho, burning 26,000 acres, between 1992 and 2013, according to an analysis by the Statesman. More than 70 of those fires were 10 acres or larger.

Fireworks caused more than 350 fires in Idaho, burning 25,000 acres, between 1992 and 2013. Click to see an interactive map of the local fires.

Aerial fireworks — those that shoot into the air and explode — are illegal to use anywhere in Idaho, but retailers are not prohibited from selling them. Non-aerial fireworks — those that do not leave the ground or emit sparks more than 20 feet — are legal to use, unless county or city ordinances state otherwise.

Idaho’s loophole sends a mixed message, Doan said.

“Put yourself in somebody’s shoes. You are buying the fireworks at a stand here in Idaho. Why wouldn’t you assume that you couldn’t light them?” Doan said.

“In Boise, we do not allow illegal fireworks to be sold in the city limits. We passed an ordinance that they cannot sell them in Boise. But they just go down the road and buy them in other places,” he said.

Doan wants to fix this paradox.

“I am going to propose that we change the law,” Doan said. “Illegal fireworks means it is illegal to buy, sell and use.”

Doan intends to pitch his plan at the Southwest Idaho Fire Chiefs board meeting later this month. Then he will work on building a coalition, drafting legislation and finding legislators to support it.

Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett is already on board.

“I would be happy to be a member of Chief Doan’s coalition to advocate for some essential changes to Idaho code about the sale of fireworks,” Bartlett said. “It has been proven that not every person who buys illegal fireworks honor the affidavit saying they won’t ignite them in Idaho. We’ve seen earlier this week how dangerous the use of illegal fireworks can be to our community.”

Tracking down fireworks scofflaws, including trying to determine if people who legally purchased illegal fireworks actually used them out of state, would be a Herculean task for law enforcement agencies.

“Reports of illegal fireworks would be low on the priority list if there were any other calls for service pending at the time,” said Ada County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Patrick Orr. “Staffing is also an issue. Such calls would have a low priority at times when our staff is tied up with other more pressing calls and we need to maintain our patrol flexibility.”

Doan knows changing the law will be a challenge because he does not think there is community or political support to prohibit the sale of illegal fireworks.

“Our country and our community love the Fourth of July,” he said. It is all-American and fireworks are, too.”

While Ada County is on board with banning all fireworks in unincorporated areas of the county, something it has done annually since 2010, Ada County Commissioner Jim Tibbs said banning the sale and use of fireworks statewide may not be the answer.

“I am not prepared to say, ‘Let’s ban all fireworks,’ … because if you try to ban all fireworks, there is going to be a considerable outcry,” Tibbs said. “But I absolutely think a conversation needs to take place so we can explore all the different avenues and talk about all the options. … I think Chief Doan is right on target to collect all the stakeholders, get a coalition together and have a some discussions.”

The challenge, Doan said, is to strike a balance between public safety, government and people who do not like the government telling them what to do.

“We are striking that balance in Boise by saying ‘safe and sane’ fireworks only and you can’t do them in [the Foothills]. You cannot do illegal anywhere in the city.”

But the city and county ordinances and rules are not working.

Aerial fireworks are illegal statewide without a special permit. Boise and Ada County prohibit all fireworks in the Foothills. Fireworks also are prohibited in all state and federal public lands.

“One of the biggest problems we have, when you walk around on the Fourth of July, is it is a war zone of illegal fireworks,” Doan said.

The fireworks that sparked this week’s 2,500-acre Table Rock fire were lit in an area where all fireworks are prohibited.

Bureau of Land Management fire investigators collected fireworks evidence at the site where the Table Rock fire began, but they are not releasing details about the type of fireworks or if they were legal or illegal fireworks until the investigation is concluded, said BLM spokesman Brandon Hampton.

Since the fireworks were discharged illegally in the county, Ada County Sheriff’s Office detectives are working to find the culprits. Once found, they could be charged with a misdemeanor and also could be liable for reimbursing BLM’s and the city’s costs to fight the fire.

Doan said he is a fan of big aerial fireworks displays, as long as professionals are legally staging them in a safe area.

“I have been going to Ann Morrison for 10 to 15 years. I go to watch the legal fireworks and have a good time there.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

Using fireworks in the City of Trees (and sagebrush)

In Boise, it is legal to sell and use “safe and sane fireworks” from at midnight June 23 through midnight July 5, and midnight December 26 through midnight January.

These are not “safe and sane” fireworks:

▪ Fireworks containing explosive material that will burn or explode when ignited. (Examples include, but are not limited to, firecrackers, cherry bombs, M-80s.)

▪ Fireworks that leave the ground or fly when tossed into the air. Examples can include skyrockets, bottle rockets, mortar shells, Roman candles.

▪ Fireworks designed for ground or near-ground use that travel outside of a 15-foot diameter circle.

▪ Fireworks designed for ground or near-ground use that, as a means of propulsion, emit showers or sparks longer than 12 inches.

▪ Fireworks designed for use from a stationary position that emit sparks, showers, or flaming balls, vertically more than 20 feet; or from which discharged material falls beyond a 20-foot diameter circle.

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