Issues of the Environment: Protecting public health and the environment during fireworks season
- After several soggy years where flooding was a growing concern, as of June 8th, Washtenaw County is officially in a drought. Currently, the U.S. Drought Monitor considers the region to be “abnormally dry”, versus “exceptionally dry," but that could change if the rainfall during the summer months does not exceed the moisture lost to evapotranspiration. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/weather/2023/06/drought-area-skyrockets-over-michigan-midwest-in-past-week.html)
- This year, local fire departments are advising against open burning of any kind because of the risks. The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office issued an open burn advisory on Thursday, June 8 that remains in effect stating, “Temperatures in the lower to mid-70s combined with extremely dry vegetation and lack of rainfall continue to create a very high to extreme fire danger across the region,” the Sheriff’s Office wrote in its advisory. “This means that conditions are favorable for fires to start easily and quickly burn out of control.”
Due to the drought, Fire Chief Mike Kennedy from the Ann Arbor Fire Department asks that everyone take fire safety seriously over the upcoming July 4th holiday, especially while using fireworks. He offers these tips for preventing accidental fires:
- Run a bucket of water prior to lighting off fireworks and soak spent fireworks when finished for a couple of hours.
- Designate a safety perimeter. If you have ground-based fireworks like a fountain, spectating from at least 35 feet away is best. For aerial fireworks, you’ll want everyone to move back to a distance of around 150 feet.
- Ditch faulty fireworks. Sometimes fireworks don’t go off, but duds always pose a risk. The important thing to know is that you should never try to relight or approach a failed firework. Let duds sit for 5 -10 minutes before you put them in a bucket of water. This can prevent injury from a delayed explosion and disarm the firework permanently so you can safely dispose of it.
- Supervise children when they are handling sparklers. Sparklers burn at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to melt some metals. Sparklers can quickly ignite clothing, and children have received severe burns from dropping sparklers on their feet or touching body parts.
- Only light one firework at a time. Lighting multiple fireworks at the same time increases the risk of accidents occurring from the fuse burning faster than designed.
- Avoid alcohol consumption when handling or using fireworks. This should be pretty self-explanatory.
- Consider safe alternatives to fireworks such as party poppers, bubbles, silly string, or glow sticks. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.dhs.gov/science-and-technology/news/2022/06/30/10-tips-firework-safety)
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and the 4th of July is right around the corner. And the fireworks season, as you may have heard of late, is getting underway. I'm David Fair, and welcome to Issues of the Environment. I don't need to tell you fireworks can be dangerous to those setting them off and, if not done carefully, pose a serious fire hazard and threat to the environment, particularly given recent weather trends. In fact, as of June 8th, Washtenaw County has officially been in a state of drought with the U.S. drought monitor considering the region "abnormally dry." Without proper precautions and safety measures, fireworks season could be a serious threat. Despite the increased risks, we know people are still going to celebrate, and they're going to set off an abundance of fireworks over the next several days. So, how do we do it safely? That's where our guest comes in. Mike Kennedy is the chief of the Ann Arbor Fire Department. And thank you so much for the time today, Chief Kennedy. I appreciate it.
Mike Kennedy: Happy to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
David Fair: Well, I don't need to tell you the urban canopy in Ann Arbor is significant. Have you been monitoring just how dry the ground there is in assessing potential hazards and dangers?
Mike Kennedy: We certainly have been. Fortunately, in Ann Arbor, the wildland fires that they experienced in Canada and even northern Michigan aren't as big of a threat for us. But, a simple wildland fire can quickly spread to structures in Ann Arbor, which is of primary concern to us.
David Fair: And have you had to deal with any fires because of dryness and somebody being perhaps careless as of this summer?
Mike Kennedy: Unfortunately, we have. We had a very significant third alarm fire on Memorial Day, and it was absolutely in a result to the dry conditions. A resident was actually burning trash in between two buildings and was using cardboard. And that fire quickly spread to vinyl siding—
David Fair: And it was over by Maple Road, right?
Mike Kennedy: Yep. Yep. Absolutely. And it was spread to an adjoining duplex and to two detached garages. And the dry conditions were absolutely a contributor to the significance of that event.
David Fair: It is without question going to be interesting to watch to see if people heed all of the cautions that were out there. Among them, the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office has advised against any kind of open burning, giving our conditions. What all do you include when we use the phrase "open burning?"
Mike Kennedy: So, open burning can vary depending on municipality. So, what might be permitted in the City of Ann Arbor might be very different in, for instance, Salem Township, which is a more rural community. So, I really recommend to listeners that they need to check what their local municipality has. So, for the City of Ann Arbor, we actually do not allow open burning. And open burning is considered where people are burning natural products. No matter what municipality, the open burning of trash is not permitted.
David Fair: We're talking about fire pits and those kinds of things.
Mike Kennedy: Correct. There are some very rural parts of Michigan that they do allow that because, basically, there's no trash collection agency. But, in Washtenaw County, there's no municipality that allows for that just open burning of trash. What is generally considered open burning would be large amounts of yard debris or agricultural products. And some of that is permitted in some of the more rural areas of the county. For the City of Ann Arbor, though, it is, it is not permitted. We do allow what we call recreational fires, and those are small campfires. And if people do do that, they need to be very cognizant that they are done at minimum distance of 25 feet from a structure which, unfortunately, did not happen with the incident we had over Memorial Day.
David Fair: This is Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking fire safety with Ann Arbor Fire Chief Mike Kennedy. And I want to move the conversation specifically to fireworks. Now, if I understand local ordinance correctly, fireworks are only allowed in Ann Arbor from tomorrow, June 29th, and must end on July 4th. And I think the state has a law that you can only set off fireworks between 11 a.m. and 11:45 p.m. Do I have that right?
Mike Kennedy: Yep, that is absolutely correct. Now, some municipalities can extend that. Ann Arbor has adopted the state minimums, which is exactly what you mentioned, June 29th to July 4th until 11:45 each of those days.
David Fair: So, if I'm planning a backyard fireworks display this year, including some that are aerial fireworks, what's your best advice for safely setting those off while also ensuring the only thing I set on fire is the actual fireworks?
Mike Kennedy: So, the safest is always a professional display. That is absolutely the safest way to do things is is to go to one of many local displays in southeast Michigan if people are going to do it.
David Fair: And you know they do.
Mike Kennedy: Yes, we do, unfortunately, is to make sure that there's plenty of room. Now for Ann Arbor, we deal with annually a lot of issues of people going to city parks to set off fireworks, which is not permitted. We also find people going to private property, and they might not have permission to be on and setting off fireworks there. So, fireworks are not allowed in city parks, nor are they allowed on private property that someone doesn't have permission to use. A lot with the fireworks is that--especially something that is aerial that leaves its container--once that leaves, you have no control over where that lands. And if it lands on a roof and potentially sets that roof on fire, lands on vegetation, whoever sent that firework off is potentially criminally responsible, along with some civil responsibility from any property damage.
David Fair: Is there different advice for the things that we allow our kids to get close to and potentially touch, like sparklers and things like that?
Mike Kennedy: Yeah. So, sparklers can be incredibly hot, and it actually results in the...July 4th is the number one day annually for burn injuries. So, people can think that it's sparklers or some other fireworks that don't leave the ground is being safe, but all of those can create burn injuries, so if they were to be used, it needs to be done under absolute direct adult supervision. We had a fire last year in Ann Arbor where, after they were done lighting the fireworks, they threw them in a trash can next to a building. And the fireworks were still hot and set the trash can on fire and then set the building on fire. So, any discarded fireworks need to be soaked in a bucket of water for several hours and then, only after they've had a chance to soak, then should be thrown away.
David Fair: Now, perhaps you've had experiences--I have on occasion, mostly when I was a kid. But you light the fuse of a firework. You stand back. And absolutely nothing happens. I suspect a good deal of the injuries that do take place every year. These burn injuries are because of fireworks we thought were duds. What do we need to be on the lookout in that case?
Mike Kennedy: So, if that happens, number one, do not look at it. Horrifically, for some eye injuries by people attempting to look at a tube, so if it does not activate, use that same bucket of water that we had talked about. Just soak it in there. And, unfortunately, it's just kind of money that you're not going to get back. But don't try to relight it. Don't look at it because there's a good chance that that could inadvertently go off and really create some significant trauma.
David Fair: Our conversation with Ann Arbor Fire Department Chief Mike Kennedy continues on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. I'm curious, and I'm not personally aware of any, but maybe you are because this is your business. Are there are alternatives now that may be less of a fire hazard and less dangerous for home use, but, at the same time, kind of fulfill that celebratory nature of July 4th?
Mike Kennedy: I think that the sound and the sight of fireworks is pretty hard to beat, especially with several years ago, with the state easing restrictions and allowing what are considered consumer-grade fireworks, which leave the ground. If people were to do it, again, just make sure that it's done in an open area, ideally on some sort of paved surface. And a complicating factor is usually some sort of alcohol in addition to fireworks is never a good idea. So, people using fireworks need to be sober and being done in a safe and clear environment.
David Fair: So, every year, you know, this time is rolling around. Obviously, there are preparations you as leader of a department have to make. Is it all hands on deck at all the firehouses throughout the July 4th holiday?
Mike Kennedy: We generally expect that we're going to be busier for that. And the dry conditions are certainly going against us going into this holiday weekend. And we always know it's going to be busy. We generally get a lot of complaints from people that basically neighbors maybe aren't being as respectful as they could have. And the enforcement side becomes very difficult because if they're following the state law and the local ordinances, even though they might not be polite neighbors from an enforcement perspective, there's not a whole lot we can do.
David Fair: The time on and around the 4th of July, as we've discussed, is always going to include fireworks and, in some areas, some small recreational bonfires as part of the celebration. Do you have any final words of wisdom for this year as we prepare for the 2023 edition?
Mike Kennedy: So, another one that people tend to forget about is the impact on pets. The July 4th holiday is the number one day of the year where pets go missing. So, even if pets are normally outdoors and even if they might not come inside, this is really a good time of year to take pets inside because--
David Fair: They get scared and run off, right?
Mike Kennedy: Absolutely. They get scared and run off. And so, I just really recommend to people that, during this time period, try to keep your pets indoors. And if they are outside, really make sure they're on a sturdy leash or in a fenced in area. But this can be a very traumatic time for them. And we just want to look out for our furry family members.
David Fair: Well, I thank you for the time today, Chief, and I wish you and the department well and may it be a quiet 4th of July.
Mike Kennedy: We greatly appreciate that. Thank you.
David Fair: That is the chief of the Ann Arbor Fire Department, Mike Kennedy, our guest on Issues of the Environment. For additional information on fireworks hazards and safety, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resource Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89-1 WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
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