Idaho's Big Bang Theory: Safe? Sane? Really? 

"You're kind of making people dishonest, because many of the people who sign those light them in Idaho anyway."

Rows of illegal fireworks inside Fat City fireworks, south of Boise.

George Prentice

Rows of illegal fireworks inside Fat City fireworks, south of Boise.

The Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles tells of a commoner switching places with the king, only to find the titular sword hanging precariously above the throne. The lesson? Power is fraught with terror and the danger of death.

But in the quite-real world of a Canyon County fireworks stand, powerful mortar fireworks called—without a hint of irony—the Sword of Damocles, are legally available to purchase, yet illegal to ignite or even store anywhere within the state. Idaho's policy is a statewide ban on fireworks not designated as "safe and sane", a national standard for firework codes.

"Safe and sane fireworks are designed to not spread more than twenty feet wide or more than twenty feet in the air," Nampa Deputy Fire Marshall Reggie Edwards told Boise Weekly. "So in the middle of a parking lot or a field where there's no combustible vegetation, it can't catch anything on fire, it can't spread, they're designed so they don't explode or rupture eardrums."

Safe and sane fireworks are available at vendor stalls throughout the Treasure Valley this week; however, they are fully banned for use in many public lands, including the Boise Foothills, due to wildfire risk.

"It is always dry in Boise on July 4th. Our typical climate is such that we can just count on the foothills being dry, however this year it's exceptionally dry," said Boise Police Department Public Information Officer Lynn Hightower. "If anyone goes outside the boundaries and uses [fireworks] in the banned spaces, it could really be disastrous."

Hightower put a special emphasis on safety, even within the city limits. "It's an indication that we all need to be really careful if you see anything that could spark a fire, including fireworks."

Boise Fire Marshall Romeo Gervais told Boise Weekly that in 2012, his department had fifteen calls for "some sort of fire" on the Fourth of July.

"Seven of those were documented as being related to fireworks and six of the others were undetermined but could have been fireworks related," he said. " On a national scale, two out of five fires on the Fourth of July are related to fireworks."

Meanwhile in Nampa, the majority of July 4, 2012 fires were caused by illegal fireworks.

"The safe and sane fireworks? We do have fires started by them, but that's usually from improper use," said Edwards.

Even vendors told BW that they agreed that improper use was a problem.

"You have burning embers flying through the air. That's likely to land on someone's roof, that poses more of a risk," said Fat City vendor Tyler Shawn. "At the same time, if someone's lighting off fireworks in a dry field, any firework, it's going to start a fire."

Shawn's stall, outside of the Boise City limits, included illegal fireworks—illegal, at least, in Idaho. A loophole in the law allows vendors to sell them, providing customers sign an waver stating they will transport them immediately out of state. Fire Marshall Edwards explained to BW how the "loophole" works.

"It's a law called the Interstate Commerce Act. It says if you purchase these fireworks, they will not be used, handled, stored or lighted anywhere within the boundaries of the state of Idaho," said Edwards. "People are signing these forms, fraudulently signing these forms, and taking them home."

Brandon Thompson, a vendor inside Boise City limits selling only "safe and sane" fireworks, discussed the paradox with BW.

"I think illegal fireworks should be legal to sell," he said. "You're kind of making people dishonest, because many of the people who sign those light them in Idaho anyway."

Thompson's fireworks selection ranged from basic handheld sparklers to pyrotechnic packs of faux-volcanoes. He said the most commonly sold pack is the "Psychedelic," selling for $40 in a box.

Meanwhile, Shawn's stall was selling illegal fireworks costing up to $500. He said an average customer could spend a couple of hundred dollars on boxes with names like 18 Car Pile Up, Big Attitude, and Fully Loaded, the last of which is one of the most powerful fireworks available to consumers, packing 9 rounds of 3 inch mortar shells—the same caliber used by infantry during WWII.

Fire Marshall Edwards told BW that 4th of July fireworks could look like "shock and awe."

"It's unbelievable how many illegal fireworks are being set off. [The law] is obviously not working. The state legislators, they need to either close the loophole and outlaw the illegal fireworks once and for all, or they need to just legalize them. Do one or the other," said Edwards. "It's frustrating for us. The right decision is to close the loophole in the law and make them illegal like they should be."

One suggestion Edwards has for anyone seeking spectacle is to attend sponsored public shows.

"There's no reason to spend all the money on the illegal fireworks and shoot them off. We fully encourage the big shows, the big events, because obviously they're safe, they're great shows, it brings the community out, and it's just a good, positive, fun evening."

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