Debate continues over public, private firework displays [UPDATE]

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(Illustration by Colin Zelinski)

Update at 11:10 p.m. - Local fireworks sellers have agreed to not sell "winged fireworks", rockets and missiles due to concerns about fires starting because of dry vegetation. "Winged fireworks" are fireworks that shoot into the sky and are therefore considered more dangerous. Vendors in Bastrop, Travis and Williamson counties pulled these items off their shelves on Tuesday.

At a Mr. W Fireworks stand along U.S. Highway 290 west, sales people Skeye Sullivan and Zachary Pickrell sit in lawn chairs beneath a pitched tent, patiently awaiting customers. When a silver Tahoe pulls off to the side of the highway, Sullivan quickly rises to greet her new customers. She demonstrates a firecracker to a young boy, who giggles and claps his hands in excitement.

 

This stand is one of many firework stands that surround major and minor roads in Travis County outside of Austin’s city limits. Travis County has a burn ban in place until July 25, although fireworks can still be legally sold from June 24 to July 4. While Travis County officials are encouraging citizens to go to public firework displays, some people are taking advantage of the opportunity to buy the explosive light and noise devices in preparation of Fourth of July celebrations.

Pickrell said this is his and Sullivan’s first time selling fireworks, but they plan to do it again at New Years and in the future. He said the most popular item they’ve sold so far has been small noise-making firecrackers.

Sullivan, who said she has always loved fireworks for as long as she could remember, said fireworks are something everyone can enjoy. “It’s fire,” Sullivan said. “What’s not to love?”

Some disagree with Sullivan. Concerned with safety, Travis County officials are recommending people enjoy fireworks at community events where the explosives are handled by professionals, rather than buying and using their own. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, a department under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, fireworks caused 8,600 injuries in 2010, with 73 percent of them occurring between June 18 and July 18. FEMA warns that sparklers burn at a temperature around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt metal and cause third-degree burns. The agency also warns that firecrackers can injure a person’s hands or face if they explode at an unsafe distance.

Lisa Block, a spokeswoman for the Travis County Emergency Services, said the Travis County Fire Marshal’s Office believes it is safer to attend public displays because fire-fighting equipment and personnel are nearby to handle any emergency, should one occur.

“Every year during New Year’s and the Fourth of July, the number of calls made to emergency services increases,” Block said. “Usually, there are reports of a fire an average of three calls a day, but as many as 212 calls have been received in one day on these holidays.”

Should people decide to purchase and use their own fireworks, Block said there were certain safety procedures Travis County recommends they follow, such as only using fireworks on smooth, flat surfaces, away from leaves, grass, people and buildings. Block said it was also important to not use fireworks that seemed to be malfunctioning.

City of Round Rock spokesperson Roger Heaney said the firework show in Round Rock is performed by licensed pyrotechnicians and is staffed by the local fire department in the event of an accident. But Heaney said there has never been an accident in the 20 years Round Rock has been holding the celebration.

Heaney said people enjoy coming to the event because fireworks have always been something that fascinated them.

“Fireworks create a sense of adventure and safe danger,” Heaney said. “I think it also takes us all back when we were kids and how we had a sense of wonder and amazement as a child when we witnessed fireworks for the first time.”

The Round Rock firework show is on July 4 and begins at 9:30 p.m. at Old Settlers Park. In Austin, the Austin Symphony July Fourth Concert and Fireworks, another firework celebration, is happening at the Auditorium Shores at 8:30 p.m.

Heaney said public firework displays foster community spirit. But Pickrell said there is nothing like using fireworks on your own.

“People like to blow shit up,” Pickrell said. “Fireworks are a symbol of independence and American freedom. What other reasons do you need?”