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'Horrible experiment': York officials rail against fireworks law

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch
Steve Smith of Tappahannock, Va. loads fireworks at Big Fireworks in Glen Rock Thursday, June 25, 2020. He spent more than his usual $500 for his holiday fireworks show. "My daughter just graduated so I have to do something extra for her," he said. Big Fireworks manager Leslie Wilson estimates sales there are about 4 to 5 times more than the previous year since many municipalities have canceled fireworks due to COVID-19 restrictions this year. Bill Kalina photo

York City's fire chief and its mayor both said the state's 2017 law expanding fireworks should be rolled back.

The calls followed a holiday weekend in which emergency crews responded to numerous calls throughout York County related to incidents involving the explosives.

The Fourth of July weekend was marked by frustration and insanity, York City Fire Chief Chad Deardorff said, as city firefighters and police responded to dozens of fires throughout the weekend that were started by fireworks set off illegally.

“It was a long and frustrating weekend," Deardorff said. “Something needs to happen before more people are hurt or killed."

Between July 1 and July 5, York County 911 received 653 fireworks-related calls, including 527 noise complaints, according to York County spokesperson Mark Walters. That's up from the 399 calls during the first 15 days of July in 2019. 

On July 4 alone in York City, emergency officials responded to 12 different fires caused by fireworks totaling $170,000 in estimated damage, Deardorff said.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said the explosion of fireworks usage throughout the city is "basically terrorism."

“This fireworks things has just got to stop,” Helfrich said during Monday's City Council meeting. “And I’m committed to do everything I can do to try and get the state to turn itself around and correct its mistakes. This was a horrible, horrible experiment.”

More:Fireworks complaints continue to rise in York County

Fireworks have been a thorn in the side of Pennsylvania's local officials since Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation in 2017 that vastly expanded what fireworks can be used in the state, which was included as a provision in a larger tax code bill. The 12% tax imposed on fireworks sales within the revenue bill raised a projected $7.4 million in fiscal year 2019-20, reported SpotlightPA

The provision permitted Pennsylvanians to purchase and use fireworks that could contain up to 50 milligrams of explosive materials, with some restrictions.

Those restrictions included banning fireworks on public property and on any other property without permission, prohibiting use if the individual setting off the fireworks is intoxicated, and barring any fireworks used within 150 feet of any occupied structure.

Red Lion July 3rd Fireworks seen from Fairmount Park in Red Lion, Friday, July 3, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In densely populated municipalities such as York City, though, that last criteria renders fireworks seemingly restricted in most — if not all — areas. Still, the explosions in the days leading up to the July 4 holiday persisted.

“We're overwhelmed, we're understaffed, comparative to other departments, and it takes a toll on our guys," Deardorff said. 

Other local fire departments chimed in to express similar sentiments.

The West Manchester Township Fire Department said in a Facebook post that many members of the department spent their Fourth of July weekend "putting out multiple fires due to careless and illegal use of fireworks."  

"We are very thankful that we only had minor property damage within the township, but our neighbors were not so lucky," the post reads.

More:Fire caused by illegal fireworks displaces 10 in York City

Early Sunday morning, a fire caused by illegal use of fireworks displaced six adults and four children in York City, according to fire officials.

The fire, in the 600 block of Manor Street, was reported just after 12:30 a.m., according to 911 call records. 

The blaze caused $75,000 in damage to one house and $50,000 in damage to the other, the York City Department of Fire and Rescue Services reported.

Several state lawmakers are striving to change current fireworks legislation, including state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, who has had several conversations with both Deardorff and Helfrich on making changes.

"Misuse can cause great damages," said Phillips-Hill. "We've seen fires, we've seen families uplifted."

Specifically, Phillips-Hill cited seeking changes in penalties for violating the fireworks law not being "significant enough."

"We're talking about increasing fines from the current $100 to $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for the second offense," Phillips-Hill said.

On June 30, Phillips-Hill was among state senators who voted 48-2 to amend Senate Bill 932, which would raise existing penalties. Several Senate Democrats say the amendment doesn't go far enough and are calling for a repeal of the 2017 measure.

"We are continuing to have those conversations," Phillips-Hill said. "These fireworks are dangerous."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.