Short Fuse: Idaho's Heated Fireworks Debate 

Fire officials point to Boise Foothills blaze triggered by fireworks

Some fireworks that are illegal to ignite in Idaho can cost as much as $190. Meanwhile, new saftety posters (right) have begun appearing at fireworks stands in Bioise city limits

Savannah Cardon

Some fireworks that are illegal to ignite in Idaho can cost as much as $190. Meanwhile, new saftety posters (right) have begun appearing at fireworks stands in Bioise city limits

click to enlarge SAVANNAH CARDON
  • Savannah Cardon

First-time visitors to the giant Fat City Fireworks might get a sense of deja vu: It's similar to a popular warehouse club where shoppers push oversized carts down extra-wide aisles, buying food and other items in bulk. Unlike the other store, however, it's illegal in Idaho to buy many of the products for sale at Fat City.

The proprietors of Fat City don't like the term "illegal." They label the pyrotechnics that are illegal to ignite in Idaho as "Big Boy Toys," and have divided Fat City into blue- and red-painted aisles, with the illegal aka "Big Boy" fireworks in the red aisles on the "fun side" of the store. The blue aisles contain "safe and sane" items, which are fireworks that emit sparks or showers less than 20 vertical feet high. Bottle rockets, aerial displays and firecrackers—which shoot sparks well above 20 feet high—are available on the fun side.

The Fat City warehouse store is one of only a few buildings along a stretch of Simco Road in Elmore County. Inside, scores of customers pushed carts loaded with Big Boy items like the Ghost Rider ($79.95), the Amazing Ballet ($149.95) and the USA Conqueror ($189.99). It was business as usual—and there's the rub.

click to enlarge SAVANNAH CARDON
  • Savannah Cardon

"I still think that when it comes to the use of aerial and/or illegal fireworks in Idaho, our homes are at risk, our neighborhoods are at risk and not much is going to change anytime soon," said Idaho House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding (D-Boise). The Idaho fireworks issue makes him hot under the collar. "I think we're going to see fires started by fireworks that were illegal to use in Idaho, yet they were purchased legally in Idaho."

The class of fireworks that it's illegal to light in Idaho aren't illegal to buy. There's no waiting period, no background check. At Fat City, customers loaded their finds, both legal and illegal, on the counter, ready to dish out a considerable amount of money. The only requirement they had to fulfill to get their fireworks was they had to sign an affidavit swearing they were at least 18-years-old and were aware their fireworks were dangerous and would be "transported outside of the State of Idaho."

"That's the real nuance of this," said Erpelding. "They're bought legally, and then they sign this stupid piece of paper that says that they won't light them off in Idaho. They light them off in Idaho anyway."

The whole idea of the affidavit frustrates Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan.

"It sets people up for a wink and a nod," said Doan "It sets people up to really perjure themselves. What are we teaching our children? That it's okay to just wink and nod and sign something?"

UPDATE: On June 27, Boise Fire Chief Doan circulated a new opinion from the Idaho Attorney General's Office which adds another layer of debate over Idaho's fireworks dilemma. In a letter from Paul Panther, chief of the Idaho Attorney General's criminal law division, addressed to Rep. Erpelding, Panther writes, "Special fireworks, that is, fireworks that are not non-aerial common fireworks or 'safe and sane' fireworks, can only be sold to a person possessing a permit issued pursuant to Idaho Code 39-2605 for a public display or event. Such fireworks can only be sold within a reasonable time period before the display or event." Doan said, "This means that, under Idaho law, a person with a retail license can only sell non-aerial common, or 'safe and sane' fireworks. Fireworks that are not safe and sane are not available for sale to the general public."

You can read the full letter from Panther below:

That said, the sale of illegal fireworks and the subsequent signing of affidavits by customers continued at fireworks retailers, such as Fat City. Those affidavits and the robust sales of illegal fireworks in Idaho aren't anything new. What puts the system in a different light is what occurred a year ago, Doan said, as Boise was preparing to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday.

click to enlarge The 2,500-acre Table Rock fire, sparked in the Wild Horse subdivision, ripped down the Boise Foothills toward the Warm Springs Mesa and Harris Ranch subdivisions. - BOISE FIRE DEPARTMENT
  • Boise Fire Department
  • The 2,500-acre Table Rock fire, sparked in the Wild Horse subdivision, ripped down the Boise Foothills toward the Warm Springs Mesa and Harris Ranch subdivisions.

In the pre-dawn hours of June 30, 2016, flames ripped across the Boise Foothills toward the Table Rock landmark. The blaze scorched more than 2,500 acres of land, destroyed one residence and threatened dozens more. Investigators later concluded that the fire was sparked by fireworks. In February, 20-year-old Taylor Kemp admitted he ignited an illegal Roman candle, causing the massive fire. On May 26, Kemp was sentenced to a maximum of six months in jail, most of it suspended and was ordered to pay $391,790 in restitution to the Boise fire and police departments, the Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Power and the owner of the home destroyed in the fire.

"I do think [in] the wake of that incident it's going to be different thinking about fireworks this year, but that doesn't negate the fact illegal fireworks still put homes and private property at risk," said Erpelding. "My hope now is that citizens are more aware of the consequences than they have been in the past. If they are, I think we're in a better place. Maybe people won't take illegal aerial fireworks up into the mountains and light them into fields."

Using the 2016 foothills fire as an example, Erpelding stood before the Idaho House State Affairs Committee in February and proposed legislation that would close the loophole allowing the sale of illegal fireworks in Idaho. The House didn't move the legislation forward—the committee didn't even grant Erpelding a full hearing on the issue. So now, it's up to the public to apply pressure to lawmakers, Doan said.

"When our communities decide that they've had enough, that's when change is going to be made," said Doan. He also said there are plenty of "safe and sane" fireworks at stands all across the Boise.

"Here's the thing: Each one of them is licensed and the Boise Fire Department inspects every one of them," Doan said. Each fireworks stand in Boise must also display a poster with a large photo of the foothills fire accompanied by two words in large print: "Remember 2016?"

The Treasure Valley isn't the only place with pyrotechnic problems.

In the small Boise County town of Crouch, the official population is about 150 but swells during the summer months. Crouch is not only a popular vacation destination, it has gained national notoriety: Videos of out-of-control fireworks being set off in the middle of town seem to go viral every Fourth of July.

"It's like a train wreck," said Garden Valley Chamber of Commerce President Diane Caughlin in 2014. "I dread the Fourth of July."

Apparently she and other city officials had enough.

Earlier this year, the city of Crouch banned setting fireworks off in the middle of town, even though Crouch merchants felt the novelty of seeing their community make national news was worth the grief of cleaning up the fireworks aftermath and risking a potential disaster. Caughlin acknowledged enforcing the dramatic turnaround will be a big challenge

"It'll either be a free-for-all or it'll be good," she said. "We have never acknowledged or encouraged the use of illegal fireworks in downtown Crouch. It's just something that kind of happened on its own. It evolved from when it was just locals igniting firecrackers [and] turned into a war zone. Nothing has really officially changed as far as what the Chamber is doing. That said, we want to promote a family-friendly Fourth of July."

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