KISSIMMEE – If there’s one thing people love about the Fourth of July weekend, it’s the opportunity to get outside and see a spectacular fireworks show.
Sometimes they don’t even have to leave their own house. In a state where fireworks are legal, neighbors can buy their own fireworks and set them off right in front of their house, for everyone on the block to enjoy.
And that has officials in Osceola and Lake counties very nervous.
Both counties have instituted a burn ban, set in place because of consistently dry weather that’s made conditions very dangerous for wildfires. And both counties have instituted temporary bans on the discharge of fireworks.
But the question now is how to enforce a rule like that, when so many people spend the entire Fourth of July weekend setting off fireworks for hours.
“We don’t have any mechanism in place to impose fines or anything like that,” said Niki Whistler, public information office for Osceola County. “But we are working on something like that.”
Whistler said the idea has been presented to Osceola County commissioners to approve.
“They will have to approve a fee schedule,” she said. “But in the meantime, with over 300 active fires in this state, this is not the time to be shooting fireworks. It’s dangerous.”
Lake County is taking an even tougher approach, warning residents they could be held liable for any fires caused by setting off fireworks – and the subsequent costs associated with any damages caused by the fire.
“The only thing we can actually do is what we’ve done, which is tell people we discourage it,” said Jack Fillman, assistant chief of administration for the Lake County Department of Public Safety.
“But one of the things that can occur is if they do use fireworks and there’s a fire as a result of that, they can be held responsible for the costs associated with that fire,” he added. “There is a possibility that if you’re my neighbor and you’re using fireworks and cause a fire, I would have an avenue to seek compensation for that because you violated the ordinance.”
Osceola County has had a burn ban in effect for months because of the dry weather conditions and lack of significant rainfall. Osceola County Fire Chief Richard Collins issued the fireworks ban last week for unincorporated Osceola County.
The ban remains in effect well beyond the Fourth of July weekend — until Aug. 13, in fact, or until the Keetch-Byram Drought Index for the entire county falls below 600 for a period of five consecutive days.
“Fireworks,” in Osceola County’s case, is defined as “any combustible or explosive substance and includes, but is not limited to, blank cartridges and toy cannons in which explosives are used, the type of balloons which require fire underneath to propel them, fire crackers, torpedoes, bottle rockets, skyrockets, roman candles, sparklers, snake or glow worms, trick noise makers, snappers, trick matches and any fireworks containing any explosives or flammable compound or any tablets or other devices containing any explosive substance,” according to a news release from the Osceola County Fire Department.
The ban doesn’t mean cities like Kissimmee and St. Cloud can’t have fireworks shows. Residents are encouraged to attend Independence Day celebrations and see fireworks displays at Celebration, St. Cloud’s lakefront or at one of the local theme park – shows that have legal permits and conform to safety standards that minimize the risk of setting off a fire.
Whistler said the key for the county right now is making sure residents understand the risks of setting off their own fireworks, even on a popular holiday weekend.
“We have several methods,” she said. “First we notify the media to get it out to our citizens. Second, we have it on the county’s web site’s home page, and we have it on our fire safety web site, www.MySafety.osceola org. We post weather-related and other disaster information on there, and the fireworks ban is front and center now in our community saftey website. On everything we post, I put on a phone number and I do get quite a few calls from citizens about the burn ban and fireworks ban.”
That phone number is 321-624-2841.
“The ones who live in the rural areas need to pay particular attention to the burn bans, but they are pretty diligent about it,” Whistler said. “There’s no open burning in the cities, anyway. They just have city ordinances to follow.”
In Lake County, the Lake County Fire Rescue announced last week that the wildfire response level was being raised from “elevated” to “extreme”, the highest response level, since the Keetch-Byram Drought Index for Florida was averaging 649 and the state Division of Forestry was reporting that a total of 310 active wildfires covering approximately 115,583 acres have been burning in the state due to the extreme drought conditions. LCFR has partnered with fire rescue personnel across the county, including in South Lake County communities like Groveland, Clermont, and Mascotte, to establish structure protection strike teams.
The county is also under a mandatory burn ban, enacted on June 3, and any burning in unincorporated Lake County will be in violation punishable by up to a 60-day imprisonment and up to a $500 fine. The use of any fireworks, sparklers, flares, or other pyrotechnic devices other than for public displays requiring a permit is also banned.
Fillman said he hopes to get the word out so people will voluntary obey the ban.
“What we want people to know is they should not be using fireworks because of how extremely dry the conditions are,” he said. “I know in the past we have had some reason to believe people who violated that ordinance would be repsonsible for some of the damages caused from using fireworks.”
Whistler said the recent downpours, signifying the start of the summer rainy season, have not done enough to dampen the dry conditions plaguing rural areas.
“In Osceola County, we’re 80 percent rural, 20 percent urban,” she said. “The recent rain hasn’t been significant enough yet. We’re hoping in the next two weeks, we’ll keep getting these thunder storms.
“But the problem with that is lightning,” she added. “So it’s like a double-edged sword for us.”
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