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Originally published July 2, 2013 at 9:29 PM | Page modified July 3, 2013 at 12:05 PM

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Fireworks: fun and risk wrapped in a mess of laws

Is this firework legal? Is it too dangerous for the city? The patchwork of regulations in Washington state makes enforcement difficult, while allowing determined customers to acquire banned devices.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fireworks safety tips

• Light fireworks outdoors on flat, level ground.

• Be careful not to lean over fireworks when lighting.

• Keep 20 feet between the fireworks and spectators.

• Don’t hold fireworks as they’re going off.

• Don’t alter or take apart fireworks.

• Wait 15 minutes before approaching duds.

• Soak used fireworks in water before disposing.

Office of the State Fire Marshal

Fireworks danger in Washington

Click to see an enlarged version of the graphic.

Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times

2012 injuries by age and gender

Click to see an enlarged version of the graphic.

Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times

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Buy a bottle rocket legally on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation, but set it off in neighboring Auburn, and you’re breaking state law. Take a sparkler bought in unincorporated King County into Seattle, and you could face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The patchwork of federal, state, county and city regulations makes enforcement difficult, and lets determined customers get their hands on banned devices. Fireworks are banned in many Western Washington cities, including Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue. Still, about one-third of the state’s households set off their own fireworks, according to a recent Pemco Insurance poll.

Fireworks both legal and illegal were involved in 226 injuries and 128 fires in Washington last year, according to the Office of the State Fire Marshal. That’s 3.3 injuries per 100,000 people, slightly higher than the national rate of 2.8.

“The more severe injuries are usually caused by the illegal fireworks,” said Dan Johnson, chief deputy state fire marshal. “The legal ones injure people when they aren’t following the directions and burn themselves or shoot fireworks at other people.”

Federal law bans the most explosive devices: cherry bombs, big firecrackers like M-80s, and the professional-grade fireworks used at shows. Nevertheless, they make it onto the black market.

Last week, a man in Puyallup was charged with planning to sell $40,000 worth of fireworks found stored in three garages of an apartment complex. A professional-grade firework, bought illegally at an Indian reservation, killed a Washington man who tried to light it last Fourth of July.

Fireworks banned under Washington law — such as bottle rockets, smaller firecrackers and missiles — are sold legally on tribal lands. Every year about a week before July 4, fireworks vendors begin hawking their colorful wares at Indian reservations such as Tulalip and Muckleshoot. There is space for customers to set off their fireworks legally, but they often drive their purchases off the reservation.

In Auburn, which is next to the Muckleshoot Reservation, police have to deal with complaints about these fireworks every year. “We are increasing the number of officers on emphasis patrols as we get closer to the Fourth and through the Fourth,” said Cmdr. Mike Hirman. “We will have a big number of officers in the city watching things go up.”

Fireworks illegal in Washington but legal on Indian reservations caused 39 of the 226 fireworks-related injuries last year, according to the state fire marshal. Altogether, fireworks banned by both state and federal law caused 64 injuries, including five amputations. The most common injuries were second-degree burns and trauma.

Far more widespread — and accounting for the slight majority of injuries­ — are fireworks legal under state law. These include sparklers, Roman candles, cakes and smoke bombs found at temporary stands outside many supermarkets.

In Seattle, all fireworks have been banned since 1993. Rather than making arrests, police usually confiscate the items.

The state still recorded 14 fireworks-related fires last year. Johnson, of the Fire Marshal’s Office, said the actual number is likely higher, as his office relies on voluntary reporting by individual fire departments.

Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, which serves as the burn center for four states, treated 39 patients with fireworks-related injuries in 2012. Anne Newcombe, clinical director of emergency services, said the hospital sees these incidents creep up in the weeks before and after July 4.

Kids and teenagers are most often the victims of fireworks. In particular, boys and young men age 8 to 21 account for nearly one-third of injuries in the state.

Even something as innocuous-seeming as a sparkler can be dangerous when used incorrectly. Sparkle bombs, made of sparklers bundled together with tape, can be as powerful as a stick of dynamite and can spew metal shrapnel when detonated. Tim Perciful, spokesman for the fire department serving Auburn, recalls a teenage boy coming in with a leg full of shrapnel from a sparkle bomb last year.

“That’s a perfect example of a firework that you can buy anywhere used incorrectly.”

Sarah Zhang: 206-464-2195 or szhang@seattletimes.com

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