'The situation is bad': York County fireworks lead to complaints, fires and a death

Brandon Addeo
York Dispatch
A memorial stands at 1567 Poplar Terrace in West York, Monday, July 5, 2021. A fire at the home on Saturday claimed the life of Elijah Hawkins, 8. Bill Kalina photo

York County law enforcement and firefighters responded to hundreds of fireworks-related calls over the July 4 holiday weekend, including one that resulted in a child's death. 

York County 911 received 444 calls involving fireworks between July 1 and July 6, according to data provided by the county.

That's down slightly from last year. In 2020, the county received 653 complaints; in 2019, 237; and in 2018, 331. 

House fires: Fire officials said improper use of fireworks recently caused structure fires at two county homes. 

Investigators believe an improperly discarded firework outside a home in the 1500 block of West Poplar Terrace in West York sparked a fire at the house Saturday night. A child, Elijah Hawkins, 8, died of injuries he suffered in the fire, and his brother, Evan, 6, was hospitalized with serious injuries, West York Police Chief Matt Millsaps previously told The York Dispatch. Two adults, Jacob and Brittany Hawkins, were treated for minor burns. 

More:West York Police identify boy, 8, who died after Saturday fire

More:West York School District making counselors available after student's death

Fireworks were also blamed for another recent blaze in Penn Township. That fire occurred on June 27 on Westminster Avenue. Hanover Area Fire & Rescue Chief Anthony Clousher said a firework sparked a blaze outside a residence that then spread to the building and caused about $65,000 in damage and displaced several residents. No one was injured. 

More:Hanover fire chief: Firework caused blaze that displaced two Penn Twp. families

County firefighters also responded to a number of smaller blazes caused by fireworks, including burning trash cans and dumpsters. York City Fire Chief William Sleeger said his department responded to four smaller fires caused by fireworks over the holiday weekend. York City firefighters and many other area fire stations also assisted at the fire in West York. 

'The situation is bad': A 2017 law passed by state legislators allows the purchase and use of fireworks, but it comes with prohibitions — one being that people cannot use fireworks within 150 feet of any occupied building, which rules out firework use nearly anywhere in York City.

More:'People ... are suffering': 2017 fireworks law causes headaches, complaints and fires

But it's hard to enforce that rule. 

"The fireworks situation is bad," Sleeger said. "We would have needed 100 policemen to deal with (enforcement in) the city."

City police were out in force responding to fireworks calls. For the first time, York City Police created special details on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of four officers each. Their sole focus was to respond to fireworks incidents, department spokesman Sgt. Dan Lentz said. 

"People think that because legislators passed the law that (fireworks) are legal; that’s just not the case (in York City)," Lentz said. "We had the foresight to realize this was going to be an issue — and while we can't stop or completely prevent it, we're working to enforce it as much as we can."

Sleeger stressed people need to educate themselves on proper fireworks use. 

"Folks just go out, buy fireworks, light it and shoot it. There’s a lot more to it," he said. "The debris flies down hot, remnants still have coals and embers in it, and if they put them in a pile, trash catches on fire. Most people put trash next to their house; then you've got the house (catching fire.)"

Fireworks in the news: Fireworks accidents were also prevalent this holiday weekend at the regional, and national, levels. 

Montgomery County firefighter Sean DeMuynck died battling a house fire on Sunday, and a large fireworks display in Ocean City, Maryland, exploded prematurely, injuring several pyrotechnics professionals who were setting up the show, according to The Associated Press. Sleeger said the accident in Ocean City shows the danger of fireworks even for people experienced in handling them.

A fireworks accident also claimed the life of a professional athlete. Matiss Kivlenieks, a 24-year-old goaltender prospect for the National Hockey League's Columbus Blue Jackets, died Sunday from chest trauma suffered from an errant mortar firework blast, according to The Associated Press.