In the past three years, fireworks have sent 311 Wisconsin residents to the emergency room, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
As Independence Day approaches, the Fort Atkinson Fire Department is prepared for the risks that come with everything from sparklers and bottle rockets at home to large displays at the parks.
Because the Fourth of July falls on a Thursday this week, the weekends before and after the holiday are filled with continuous bursts, according to Fort Atkinson Fire Chief Daryl Rausch. With all those fireworks, the department sees an increase in complaints about illegal fireworks.
“We probably get more of a spike in calls for illegal fireworks, neighbors’ complaints and stuff more than anything else,” Rausch said. “That’s generally from the week before, until several days after the Fourth.”
Rausch said there’s a disparity between the number of illegal fireworks that get shot off and the amount of calls they get. While it’s possible to hear pops and bangs throughout the area, it’s difficult to regulate each and every instance, especially with the number of people who come into the area from out of town around the holidays.
“With the large recreational lake here, we have so many people who come in for the weekend and they bring the stuff with them from wherever they’re coming from,” Rausch said. “So it’s a little bit hard for us to regulate. So essentially, we respond on a complaint-based basis. We don’t go out looking for violations.”
The problem of illegal fireworks comes from some confusion about Wisconsin laws, Rausch said.
“Part of the problem is in Wisconsin, it’s legal to sell some of those things and to possess them,” Rausch said. “It’s just not legal to shoot them.”
But for Fire Prevention Division Chief Tom Gerondale, the law is basic.
“It’s that simple,” Gerondale said. “If it leaves the ground, it’s illegal.”
While the department doesn’t increase its staff to prepare for the Fourth of July, it does have an increased awareness of the possibility for a fireworks-related call.
The main problem isn’t the large, professional fireworks displays, according to both Gerondale and Rausch. Both men have seen injuries at large shows and have put out small grassfires, but those shows have such tight rules and regulations that hardly anything ever goes wrong.
The real problem comes from fireworks people use in their backyards, such as sparklers and sky lanterns.
Gerondale and Rausch said they’ve seen all types of calls with backyard fireworks going wrong. The calls that are most common also can do a lot of damage, such as sky lanterns getting stuck in trees, bottle rockets landing on roofs or in barns or children grabbing the wrong end of a sparkler.
Rausch once responded to a call in which a child lit a firework, but instead of throwing the explosive, he threw the lighter, with the firework going off in his hand.
Anything can go wrong when you’re playing with fire and people should understand the risks involved and the safest uses, according to Gerondale.
“While these things are legal, they’re all safe if used properly,” Gerondale said. “But a little kid grabs hold of it or they’re not safe with it or they drop it or they put it in a waste can when it’s not completely out.”
Rausch and Gerondale said there are important guidelines to follow when using fireworks this week:
• Always have adult supervision.
• Have a bucket of water handy.
• Don’t throw anything away until the flame is out.This holiday week, if you are concerned about a firework, don’t ignore it, Rausch said.
“If you think that you have a problem because of some fireworks issue, don’t hesitate to call us,” Rausch said. “We’re not out there looking to fine somebody for using something they shouldn’t be using. We’d much rather go and deal with it proactively rather than waiting until something is well advanced.”