Fire marshal to Lewes: Stop the illegal fireworks

June 16, 2017

Between a rock and a hard place: That’s where Lewes Mayor and City Council say they are when it comes to the city’s longstanding unsanctioned beach fireworks displays on the Fourth of July. 

For many years, city officials have turned a blind eye, allowing residents and visitors to set off unsupervised fireworks up and down Lewes Beach.

But fireworks are illegal. Delaware is one of three states in the country that completely bans fireworks of all sizes, from seemingly harmless sparklers and firecrackers to full-sized, professional fireworks – except for professionally licensed displays. 

The Delaware State Fire Marshal has put the city on notice, sending a letter to officials urging them to shut down the long-standing tradition. 

“Every year we have a concern with Lewes on July 4,” said Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael Chionchio, speaking at council’s June 12 meeting. “We have problems in other places, but Lewes seems to be the biggest problem.” 

Chionchio said he recently met with Police Chief Tom Spell and City Manager Ann Marie Townshend to discuss the issue. They suggested Chionchio should speak directly to council. 

“Right or wrong, whether we’re the Grinch or not, we have to stand up and say we can’t permit that,” Chionchio said.

Chionchio said he’s spoken to previous town officials about the issue but it has continued. He pointed to a 2009 incident where an 11-year-old Virginia girl was struck in the eye with a firework on the main beach. She sustained a serious injury and was transported to Beebe Healthcare for treatment. The injury was so severe she had to go to an eye specialist upon returning to Virginia, he said. 

Councilman Rob Morgan said it’s probably too late to stop all fireworks this year because many people have already purchased fireworks for the upcoming holiday. 

“I’m shocked to hear that illegal fireworks have been going on here,” he said facetiously. “I’m aware of someone who, in a very publicly spirited way, spent a lot of money in past years to put on a show for the community. I asked that person if they had already made the investment – it’s thousands of dollars – and they have.” 

Deputy Mayor Fred Beaufait said he struggles with completely shutting down fireworks on the beach this year, but fully supports a strong effort beginning next year.

“We’ve condoned this for a long time, and here we are three weeks before the Fourth of July –people have already made their plans,” he said. “On one hand I find myself saying that it’s not really fair to the residents. On the other hand, I understand the danger and the reasons.” 

If an injury were to occur on the beach, which is public, City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas said the city could be sued. He pointed to a case in New York, where a municipality was found liable for injuries sustained during an illegal fireworks display in a park. 

“The decisive principle is that a municipality aware that its parks or playground is being used by visitors as a site for criminal activity – such as the unlawful discharge of fireworks – will be liable for resulting injuries if it fails to take appropriate preventative measures,” he said, reading from the opinion. 

Resident Brook Hedge, a retired Washington, D.C., Superior Court judge, warned council about the pitfalls of allowing fireworks to continue. 

“We only have a $6 million budget,” she said. “That goes out the window with one bad explosion, one misfiring, one eye taken out of a child. You’ve got no insurance, and then you’ve got all the taxpayers paying for someone else’s joy.” 

Chief Spell offered a three-pronged approach to curtail the fireworks – communication and education, deterrence with increased patrols on the beach and, finally, enforcement if people do not comply. 

City officials agreed education was the most important factor to minimize fireworks activities this year. They will advertise in the Cape Gazette (see Page 12) as well as provide literature to Lewes Beach homes in the weeks leading up to the Fourth of July holiday. 

“I have a lot of faith in the maturity and wisdom of my fellow citizens to take this to heart,” said Councilwoman Bonnie Osler. 

Mayor Ted Becker said he is in favor of convening a group of local businesses and organizations to discuss a sanctioned fireworks show that could begin as early as next year. 

For a group or municipality to offer a fireworks display, they must go through an expensive process to hire professionals who must abide by rules and regulations provided by the National Fire Protection Association. A 200-foot buffer is required between the fireworks canisters and the nearest building or power line. If no area meets the requirements, fireworks may be shot off from a barge in the bay.

The City of Lewes has a packed day of activities on the Fourth of July, beginning with old-fashioned children’s games on Second Street, followed by a boat parade in the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal and ending with the Doo-Dah Parade in the early evening. Though illegal, fireworks on the beach have become part of the holiday agenda. 

“We may be able to curtail it significantly with an education program if we start now,” Becker said. “I’m not sure that we’ll stop it in this first year, but we do have an opportunity to cut off maybe the more amateur people.” 

Bill would legalize sparklers

Rep. Joseph E. Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley, introduced House Bill 53 in January that would legalize ground-based and hand-held sparklers and certain other nonexplosive, nonairborne novelty items. Use of the items would be limited to July 4 and Dec. 31 only, with sales of the items permitted only 30 days prior to the holidays. The bill has been assigned to the Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee and no action has been taken as of yet.