Idaho's Fireworks Paradox 

Yes, you can buy can buy illegal fireworks (but don't even think of using them here).

Just off Exit 74 of Interstate 84, on a desolate stretch of Elmore County 20 miles south of Boise, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

A giant inflatable snowman sways in the 95-degree desert heat outside a huge warehouse. Open the nondescript doors and you're greeted by a blast of air conditioning, music and colors usually reserved for candy counters. Inside the superstore, you won't find electronics or bulk toilet paper, but you will pass row after row of illegal fireworks.

"Have you been here before? I know it's rather overwhelming," said Fat City Fireworks manager Crystal Lowther as she greeted saucer-eyed customers. "Let me show you around."

Lowther usually has to give overwhelmed customers a tour through the largest store of its kind in Southern Idaho. She escorts visitors past counters of technicolor packages with luminous names like Crystal Geyser and Burst O' Color, negotiating their way through red, white and blue plastic curtain strips into an even larger hangar-like facility.

"The main thing you need to know here is the color of the ground," said Lowther, pointing to a half-red, half-blue warehouse floor. "The blue side of the store has all of the so-called 'safe and sane' fireworks."

Lowther was referring to the classification of fireworks that are legal in Idaho. Safe and sane fireworks aren't allowed to emit sparks or showers more than 20 feet vertically. That means no bottle rockets and no aerial displays. Firecrackers are also illegal.

But the other half of the warehouse has a red floor, containing illegal fireworks--you can sell them in Idaho but you can't use them in Idaho. In fact, customers are required to sign an affidavit promising to transport the explosives out of state, and there were plenty of people buying illegal fireworks on the two occasions BW visited.

Illegal fireworks are sold regularly at stands in Star and outside of Nampa. There, customers are also required to sign affidavits promising to transport the explosives out of state.

"It's ironic, isn't it? They sell them but then tell you can't use them here," said Dr. Kenneth Bramwell, an emergency medicine specialist at St. Luke's Boise Medical Center. "Who is kidding who? I'm pretty sure those illegal fireworks are being lit up where people live. And that means they're shooting them off in Boise."

This year, like the previous eight, Bramwell will be working the emergency room's night shift on the Fourth of July.

"I've treated a number of ruptured ear drums over the years," said Bramwell. "And countless burns to the hands and arms, all from illegal fireworks."

Dennis Doan has seen worse. Before taking over as chief of the Boise Fire Department, he worked 15 years on the front lines out of station No. 5 on Sixth Street.

"I've seen people lose fingers or even their hands to illegal fireworks," said Doan. "Unfortunately, there's something every year."

Doan said the weekend surrounding the Fourth of July is usually the busiest for his men and women. In 2010, 372 incidents of illegal pyrotechnics were reported to Ada County law enforcement, including 189 calls to Boise Police.

"The Fourth of July is really a double-edge sword. You see, I love fireworks," said Doan. "It's an American rite of passage, but we have to be safe. The stands selling fireworks all around Boise have been inspected, and we count on them to sell the safe and sane items."

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One of the dozens of stands returning this year is Fortress Fireworks at 36th and State streets in Boise. Kelvin Peters told BW that his family usually takes vacation time off from their usual jobs to run the makeshift shop, selling more than 360 types of fireworks, none of them illegal.

"But everybody asks us for those," said Peters.

But Rick Lowther, the founder and owner of Fat City Fireworks, is quick to defend illegal fireworks and he isn't the biggest fan of safe and sane explosives.

"Safe and sane is not so safe or sane. In fact, they have it backwards," he said. "The stuff that goes up in the air, boom, it's gone. But this stuff," Lowther said, pointing to the rows of safe and sane products, "this stuff stays dangerously close to the ground, and the grass or a bush could catch on fire in a heartbeat. But politicians don't understand that, and they keep wanting to restrict the illegal fireworks."

Lowther said some Idaho legislators had unsuccessfully tried to eliminate illegal fireworks from being sold inside the Gem State.

"But that's crazy," said Lowther. "Our sales are solid and we collect a lot of sales tax here. And that's good for Idaho. The state is broke and, let's face it, we need less government and more business."

In fact, business has been very good for Lowther and his competitors. Retailers BW spoke to at fireworks stands across the Treasure Valley said their sales have maintained a steady pace, even through the worst of the recession. While many customers pay an average of $40-$50 for fireworks, some individual items are priced as high as $150.

"I think when people get depressed by the economy, they're still willing to pay good money for fireworks," said Lowther.

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