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Safety officials see increase in fireworks-related fires

Deputy Fire Chief Jerry Salatka and Captain Peter McWatters advise on the dangers of fireworks and ignition sources in drought-like conditions.
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The hillside at Mary Waters Park after a fire on July 9.

The hillside at Mary Waters Park after a fire on July 9. /Briana Ulrich

“The city of Grand Rapids has seen 1/10 of one inch of rain in the past 22 days,” says Deputy Fire Chief Jerry Salatka. “Since May 1 the Grand Rapids area has a four-inch deficit of rain compared to our local averages. These conditions, along with the expanded legalization and availability of consumer fireworks have caused a marked increase in fires related to fireworks.”

During the three-day span of July 3- July 5, the Grand Rapids Fire Department responded to 17 fireworks related fires. 

A fire was ignited at Mary Waters Park on 1050 Lafayette Ave on July 9 that demanded the attention of 20 firefighters and seven pieces of fire equipment. The “simple grass fire,” as Salatka referred to it, started at the base of the hill and worked to neighboring brush and trees before moving up toward East Leonard Elementary School. The fire was stopped before entering school property.

“It is believed that children who had access to fireworks once again were the cause of this fire,” says Salatka. The Deputy Fire Chief presented a bag of firecrackers, missiles, parachute mortars and other consumer fireworks that were picked up at the base of the hill where the fire was started.

According to Act 256: Michigan Fireworks Safety Act, children are not prohibited from using fireworks but it is illegal for them to purchase them, says Salatka. The act along with city ordinances also sets penalties for violations and careless use of fireworks. The city ordinance that took effect on July 1 bans the use of fireworks on all days except the three days surrounding a national holiday. This consists of the day before, the day of and the day after the holiday.

“We have seen an increase of firework related calls,” states Peter McWatters, captain of the northeast services. “We’re going to be using strict enforcement on any fireworks violation we come across.” McWatters says violations will most likely be met with an “appearance ticket,” though the process becomes difficult since the offenders have to be caught in the act in order to be penalized.

On the night of July 4, the police received 70 calls related to fireworks. McWatters said that most of the calls were dealing with quality of life, such as an individual who had to work in the morning and can’t sleep due to noise. He added that if the call is placed during the three day holiday period, there is not much the police can do.

“We lost a hillside; the people of Saint Mary Magdalen Parish lost their worship center; I pray it’s not going to take a loss of life before something is done at the state level,” says Mayor George Heartwell.  

Deputy Fire Chief Salatka and Captain McWatters are asking people to use “common sense and cease the use of fireworks at this time.” They are also asking to “limit the use of all types of ignition sources in these weather conditions,” which includes the disposal of cigarettes, until the dry conditions cease.   

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