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Don't play with fire(works): Officials urge safety with Independence Day celebrations

Posted: Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Each year the Fourth of July adds another candle to America's birthday cake; however, it also signifies the most popular day of the year for reported U.S. fires.

Of all the fires reported each Independence Day, fireworks account for half of those fires. Sparklers, firecrackers and rockets are the leading cause of fireworks-related injuries.

"People often forget that they are playing with dangerous chemicals and combustibles that can destroy property and injure people," said Alaska State Fire Marshal David Tyler in a written statement Tuesday. "These deceptively simple objects explode, throw hot sparks through the air and can often reach temperatures hotter than 1,200 degrees (Fahrenheit)."

Sparklers, too, can reach 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to inflict third-degree burns, according to the National Fire Protection Association. They can even reach temperatures upward of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit -- a temperature hot enough to melt gold.

Sparklers, fountains and novelties accounted for more than half of all fireworks-related emergency room visits for 2007, according to the NFPA.

The NFPA numbers show an estimated 9,800 people were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries in 2007. More than half of those were injuries to the extremities and more than one-third were head injuries.

Half of the 2007 injuries were burns and one-third consisted of lacerations and contusions. Forty percent of the people injured by fireworks were under the age of 15. The risk for injury was two and a half times greater for children between the ages of 5 and 14, according to the NFPA.

Eleven fireworks-related deaths occurred in 2007. The year prior, $34 million of property was lost due to fireworks, according to the NFPA.

Out of all fireworks-related injuries treated in U.S. emergency rooms, 92 percent involve the use of fireworks that federal regulations allow consumers to use.

The NFPA estimates fireworks cause more than 30,000 fires and injure 9,500 people each year.

Pyrotechnic fireworks, such as the ones used for the "Christmas Comes to Kenai" show, are prohibited on the Kenai Peninsula. Defined as "dangerous fireworks" by the borough, firework displays using these types of fireworks may only be conducted by a professional pyrotechnician.

Though illegal on the peninsula, should fireworks be present, it's important to keep a safe distance to avoid injury when they explode.

Always keep fireworks out of the hands of children.

Kids are often curious around fireworks, which can lead to injury, according to the NFPA. Children also lack the physical coordination necessary to handle fireworks safely.

It's important to prevent kids from picking up leftover pieces of fireworks as some may still be ignited and could explode.

Animals, too, need to be kept in mind.

Pets have sensitive ears and can be frightened by fireworks' loud noises. The NFPA recommends keeping animals indoors to reduce the risk of them running away or becoming injured.

The NFPA recommends keeping fireworks out of homes and attending public displays that are conducted by professionals.

The state of Alaska couldn't agree more.

"The safest way to enjoy fireworks is by attending a public fireworks display," Tyler said. "If you plan to shoot your own fireworks, make sure they are legal to use in your area and pay particular attention to safety tips to help reduce the chances of a destructive fire and/or injury."

On the peninsula, the Fourth of July is typically a quiet day, said Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale. He said CES usually receives just one or two calls that day.

Hale said dry conditions and the large amount of beetle kill makes for a potential disaster.

"You blink your eye and the tree is gone," he said. "That's how fast they go up."

"The risk is definitely high," said Sharon Roesch, fire prevention officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry.

Roesch said the risk for fires comes not only from fireworks but also campfires. Should people barbecue outdoors, it's important to drown the coals with water before dumping them in the grass, she said.

"Err on the side of caution."

Grassy areas, too, are susceptible to wildfires. Roesch said many people will think they are shooting fireworks off in safe areas, like the beach, but the wind can carry fireworks or hot embers into the grass, which is typically the first thing to ignite in a wild land fire.

"Be cautious of the wind so it doesn't blow sparks off into the grass," she said.

"Be careful and choose a good spot," Roesch added. "Location, location, location is everything for fire safety."

Mike Nesper can be reached at mike.nesper@peninsulaclarion.com.

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