- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 3, 2011

Like its customers this Fourth of July, the U.S. fireworks business is looking up these days.

As communities gather across the country to observe Independence Day displays, fireworks industry officials say that higher safety standards and the voracious revenue needs of cash-strapped states and cities have produced an unexpected rebound with a growing number of states in recent years relaxing laws on the private use of sparklers, cherry bombs and Roman candles.

“What we’re seeing is that a lot of the states said, ‘We’re losing tax revenue because our residents are going to a neighboring state or a neighboring county where fireworks may be sold,’ and that tax revenue is going there instead of into their own county,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the Bethesda-based American Pyrotechnics Association (APA).

A new Kentucky law will allow state residents to skip the drive to Indiana to buy and use fireworks that shoot into the air, such as bottle rockets and Roman candles. Hawkins County in Tennessee will allow fireworks - and fireworks sales - this year for the first time since the Truman administration.

According to the APA, 46 states and the District of Columbia now permit use of consumer fireworks, while just four - New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Delaware - still have a blanket ban on all fireworks sales. Nebraska, Kentucky, Utah and New Hampshire are among the states that have eased restrictions on fireworks use and expanded product selection. In 2010, Arizona and Rhode Island became the latest states to allow residents to buy non-aerial devices like whirligigs, fountain cones and sparklers, which have been modified to lower the risk of personal injury.

According to the association, the industry set a record with nearly $1 billion in U.S. sales in 2010, and is on pace to top that this year, even though a number of Southern and Western localities have imposed temporary restrictions in the face of drought conditions.

Corrin Halter and her mother work at the counter at a busy roadside stand in Manassas, Va., where they sell showstoppers, such as the six-minute Encore, the longest-firing “finale” on the market. Buyers can pick up turtles, snakes and sparklers with wooden handles without having to cross state lines.

“A woman just bought fireworks from us for that exact reason,” said Corrin Halter. “Their whole cul-de-sac was putting on a show.”

As a legal stand, they are free to sell regulated fireworks appropriate for neighborhood gatherings. The TNT fireworks are tucked behind the counter so buyers can’t play with the combustible items, in an effort to meet safety standards.

Not everyone is thrilled with the industry’s renaissance. Federal safety officials and local fire chiefs fear that increased public and private displays will mean more trips to the emergency room and greater danger of wildfires.

At a Washington press conference last month, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Chairwoman Inez Tenenbaum expressed a hope that 2011 would be the year with the fewest injuries from fireworks, such as burns on the hands and lacerations to the face.

Mrs. Tenenbaum and the CPSC has been working closely with fireworks manufacturers and retailers to ensure that dangerous models and duds aren’t being sold to consumers, and that consumers aren’t trying to create their own version of professional pyrotechnics, because the result can be fatal.

She said, “If you’re going to use fireworks, use fireworks that are legal, and follow safety steps - but stay away from illegal ones, and please don’t try to make your own.”

The APA’s Ms. Heckman defends the industry’s record on safety.

“We have very stringent regulations in the United States,” said Ms. Heckman. “And I think that’s why we have a good safety record.”

Some see both the fun and misfortune of fireworks.

Arizona, which changed its state fireworks law in December, has been dealing with record wildfires as it prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July. The state is scaling back its displays this year as a result.

“As the law allows, a large number of Arizona counties and municipalities are currently not allowing use of fireworks, due to the risk of wildfires,” said Matthew Benson, spokesman for Gov. Jan Brewer.

The so-called Wallow Fire obliterated more than 600,000 Arizona acres over the spring and summer, although fireworks use was not seen as the cause.

Ms. Heckman, who lobbies for her trade group, explained the precautions the APA has supported to ensure that fireworks are safely being distributed and deployed. The APA says the fireworks industry has learned from past mishaps, such as a 1995 disaster that engulfed a fireworks store in West Virginia when a disabled shopper was encouraged to light one of the shelved products.

“The industry said, ‘You know what? We’re going to make certain we don’t have anything like that again,’ ” Ms. Heckman said. “We’ve completely changed how product is allowed to be on retail sale.”

Since 1976, according to federal statistics, the fireworks-related injury rate has fallen by more than 90 percent, from 38.3 injuries per 100,000 pounds of fireworks to 3.3 injuries per 100,000 pounds in 2008.

Even travel costs seem to be cooperating with the industry this year, with more people avoiding holiday travel and planning to celebrate the Fourth closer to home.

“In the sluggish economy, people are staying home,” Ms. Heckman said. “It’s a ‘staycation,’ not a vacation, for Fourth of July, and neighbors like to get together and pool their money and put on a great show right in their cul-de-sac or down the street.”

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