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Playing with fire: Most fireworks illegal, but many ignore danger

Illegal fireworks confiscated by the Kane County Sheriff Department and other local agencies are seen.
Illegal fireworks confiscated by the Kane County Sheriff Department and other local agencies are seen.

Kevin Peterson acknowledged that, when he was a kid, he would play with fireworks.

“M80s – I blew up logs with them,” Peterson said. “Roman candles, I’d hold them in my hand and let them go. I played with all sorts of good stuff they don’t allow anymore.”

Peterson, now fire chief of the Maple Park and Countryside Fire Protection District, knows the fireworks of his childhood are now illegal in Illinois – and they never were safe to use, causing risk of injury and starting fires.

“We – luckily – have never had a lot of issues with it ourselves,” Peterson said. “Somebody used a bottle rocket once that landed on the roof of a corn crib and started the corn crib on fire. It’s been at least 10 years ago when that happened.”

In a public statement, the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal urges people to go to professional shows rather than host their own backyard blow-em-ups. But with the Fourth of July on Thursday, residents throughout Kane County likely have been hearing the booms and cracks of illegal fireworks. 

“We know people have them,” Peterson said. “And we all can tell them the legalities, that they are not allowed to have anything above a sparkler anymore. We tell them not to use them and go to a display. But people do use them, unfortunately.”

In St. Charles and Batavia – both home-rule communities – even sparklers are prohibited, according to their city codes.

Sparklers can be dangerous, said Kane County sheriff’s Lt. Pat Gengler and arson squad Sgt. Kevin Tindall.

When local police departments turn in illegal fireworks they have confiscated, the fireworks will go to the bomb and arson squad for disposal. 

A recent look at a month’s worth turned into the county showed packages of firecrackers and rockets, but other commercial-grade explosives are large enough to be used in a war.  

As Tindall unpacked box after box of rockets, Roman candles, missiles, mortar rounds and other bomblike devices, it was clear there was enough firepower to cause serious injuries and death.  

Sparklers, glow-worms and little snap-n-pops are legal in the state, except where prohibited by home-rule ordinances.

Tindall has no love for sparklers, which do not explode but send off a bright ball of sparks as a combustible material burns down on a stick. 

Sparklers were included in the county’s cache of confiscated fireworks.

“Sparklers, which are probably one of the most dangerous things anyways – whether they are the wood sticks or the metal sticks – they’ll burn around 2,000 degrees,” Tindall said. “And that’s when you see all the kids running around with them.”

Kids wearing sneakers made out of plastic or canvas and playing with a sparkler can run the risk of having the sparkler melt through the shoe and cause serious burns and foot injuries, Tindall said.

The confiscated explosives are considered consumer fireworks, Tindall said, not the kind used by professionals in legal and licensed pyrotechnic displays. 

Other safety problems even with the type intended for consumer use occur when someone will light a fuse, and the thing blows up in a person’s hand or face or when one explosion causes an uncontrolled chain reaction, Tindall said.

But how do police catch illegal fireworks displays on the Fourth?

“Therein lies the problem because there are so many of them,” Gengler said. 

And then there are the consumers who get their hands on commercial-grade explosives, not realizing that these are probably rejects that are not safe.

“Last year, we had the guy who was setting these off with a torch and got close to a secondary device and blew his hand off,” Gengler said.

Fireworks use flash powder and depending on how much is in a device, it can be a felony, Tindall said. 

Gesturing to various explosives that looked like small sticks of dynamite, Tindall said they were considered M100s, M250s and M1,000s, much more explosive than the M80s of yesteryear.

“If you have like two to three M80s, that’s a felony, illegal anywhere in the United States ... illegal anywhere it’s at because it’s so dangerous, “ Tindall said. “If you have one of these, it’s a felony, unlawful use of a weapon, possession of explosives.”

• • •

Roger Kahl was born and raised in Maple Park and still lives there. He remembers playing with fireworks back in the day.

“I started out with black powder and zip guns,” Kahl, 66, recalled. “Just normal boy stuff.”

These days, Kahl is a licensed, trained pyrotechnician, having put on 17 shows last year and planning several for the Fourth and some for holidays later in the summer.

“I work for DVC Imports in Lincoln,” Kahl said. “The crew I work with, we’re doing Burlington on July 3, Leland on July 4 and several crews in Shabonna Lake and in DeKalb. On July 6, I’ll be at the Sycamore Speedway.”

He’s been doing professional fireworks since 1999.

“Lighting is the most dangerous thing,” Kahl said of the delicate timing when rockets and missiles are launched, creating the colorful explosions in the night sky.

“Once you light that fuse, you have three seconds to back away,” Kahl said. “There’s two feet of fuse that burns at 80 feet a second, and the thing comes out of the ... mortar at 300 miles an hour. If it’s a six-inch fuse, it’s done electronically.”

Kahl said he goes to continuing education on fireworks safety. He wears safety gear while putting on a show – everything from helmet and goggles to long pants and an old firefighter’s coat.

And so far, so good.

“Everybody around here checks how many fingers and toes I have,” Kahl said. “I have them all.”

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