Idaho AG thinks it’s illegal to sell aerial fireworks here — so why do we allow it?

Scenes from the Table Rock fire

Firefighters battle an early morning blaze in June 2016.
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Firefighters battle an early morning blaze in June 2016.

Since it is the eve of the Fourth of July weekend, it must be time yet again to remind the Idaho Legislature that its inconsistent, wink-and-nod policy of allowing the sale of aerial fireworks to unpermitted individuals is neither safe nor sane.

If nobody ever purchased these fireworks and misused them… well, I think we know better than that.

Friday marks the anniversary of the June 2016 Table Rock Fire, a blackened scar on our Boise Foothills history that burned 2,500 acres, destroyed Van Danielson’s home and possessions, and endangered thousands of residents. This came about because of a young man’s careless use of aerial fireworks — illegal to use in this state and doubly so in the Foothills, where all fireworks are prohibited. Taylor Kemp received jail time and was ordered to pay $391,790 in damages.

Community leaders who recognize that this kind of incident — or much worse — could happen again are trying to do something about it, and I’m with them. Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan got things rolling last year as the damage was being assessed, pointing out that we are literally playing with fire in Idaho if we continue to allow the sale of aerial fireworks in some Idaho counties (they are banned in Ada County) to people who then use them indiscriminately.

Rep. Mat Erpelding, the Democratic minority leader in the Idaho House of Representatives, dropped a bill this year to close loopholes in the vague law that allows retailers to sell aerial fireworks. Though that bill went down to defeat, Erpelding has continued to research the issue. That led to an opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office on what state law says about the sale of aerial fireworks — an opinion his colleagues in the Legislature ought to read and act upon.

Paul Panther, chief of the AG’s criminal law division, said 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. According to the opinion, that means retailers cannot purchase and resell them and individuals can’t either — even if they follow the practice of signing some waiver promising to not shoot them off in areas where they are illegal to use.

Kudos to Doan and Erpelding for keeping this issue alive and pursuing a solution. Doan said in a Statesman story Tuesday that “law enforcement and fire officials plan to “work with and educate’ retailers to get aerial fireworks off the shelves.” Details of that initiative are still forming. I hope Erpelding continues to work with and educate his legislative colleagues with that AG’s opinion, and that these discussions result in legislation that bans the sale of aerial fireworks to anybody but the professionals who conduct fireworks shows.

It doesn’t make sense to sell fireworks that are deemed unsafe to use in this state. Idaho is sitting on a powder keg and needs to thoroughly douse it before another incident like the Table Rock Fire.

Ada County Magistrate James Cawthon, who sentenced Kemp, also lectured him about how lucky he was that the outcome was not worse. Cawthon’s words apply to this whole situation in Idaho:

“You’re lucky the Bureau of Land Management pumped every resource they had at it. You’re lucky Boise police put every unit, every officer on this. You’re lucky Boise Fire responded as quickly as they did and then unloaded every single station in the city, every single resource at their disposal.

“Their work in the middle of the night, in high winds changing three, four, five, six times amid that heat and that smoke, in the darkness saved lives, saved property. You’re lucky.”

So, Idaho, feeling lucky this weekend?

Robert Ehlert: 208-377-6437, @IDS_HelloIdaho

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