District regulations governing fireworks were incorrectly listed in a June 27 report. The listing should have indicated that sparklers, fountains, cones and snakes are legal, according to D.C. Fire Inspector James Peters. But firecrackers, skyrockets, and sparklers that shoot sparks farther than 20 inches are prohibited. (Published 7/3/87)
Just moments after two men drove into Charles County from Virginia on Rte. 301, they were pulled over by Maryland state police and fire marshals. The officials, responding to a radio message from undercover Maryland police at a fireworks stand in Virginia, searched the car and confiscated several hundred dollars worth of fireworks.
The fireworks were legal in Virginia, but illegal in Maryland. The two men, tagged with a $250 fine, fell victim to "border patrols," the Maryland state police effort to crack down on the possession of illegal fireworks through a series of searches, fines, confiscations and even increased vigilance over mail deliveries into the region.
"At the time, we had 15 vehicles stopped in the same area, and were confiscating fireworks from all of them," said Bob Thomas of the Maryland Fire Marshal's Office. He added that another one-day, large-scale confiscation operation -- similar to the one held in Charles County last year -- may take place in the upcoming week.
As the Fourth of July approaches, Maryland, Virginia and District police, fire and health officials are stepping up efforts to slow the increasing tide of illegal fireworks into the region as well as to warn the public of the potential hazards of using fireworks, legal or illegal.
Each year dozens of area residents are severely burned or blinded, suffer the loss of fingers, limbs or hearing from fireworks, according to local hospital officials.
Nationwide last year there were about 12,600 fireworks-related injuries, an increase of more than 2,000 injuries from 1985, according to the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission.
"Most of the serious injuries are to the hands and ears, but the damage can be devastating traumatically as well," said Gil Kleiner of Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. "Even the small ladyfingers cause people to lose fingers each year."
In Maryland last year, there were 128 confiscations of fireworks totaling more than 2 million pieces, all of which were blown up at an undisclosed site in Maryland, said Thomas.
District police officials reported 11 confiscations last year. Virginia does not compile statewide confiscation statistics.
While officials say it is impossible to estimate the amount of illegal fireworks bought and sold each year, most agree that the figures have been on the rise.
In addition, local retailers are reporting brisk sales of legal fireworks; particularly popular this year are the common sparklers, fountains, snakes and various assortment packs.
Officials have sought to emphasize the hazards of fireworks, even holding a demonstration this week at the Washington Monument where dolls and watermelons were exploded by commonly used illegal fireworks such as M-80s. But local fire and police officials said they are often hindered by regulations they label as contradictory and complex. Also, officials complain about a lack of cooperation among police officials in Virginia, Maryland and the District.
"The laws become very difficult to enforce because of the differences in the various jurisdictions," said Capt. Wayne Logan of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. For example, Logan said, Fairfax County, Arlington and Fairfax City allow some fireworks, but Alexandria allows none.
Fireworks often work their way into the region from surrounding states, according to police officials. Fireworks that originate in states with less stringent regulations, such as South Carolina and Ohio, are commonly confiscated, Thomas said.
Maryland, however, has some of the most stringent fireworks regulations in the region -- the possession of any fireworks -- sparklers included -- is illegal in Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, Thomas said. In all other Maryland counties, including Anne Arundel and Howard, the only legal sparklers are the "gold label" variety, which do not include chemicals added to give color.
"Normally we wouldn't fine someone $250 for having one pack of fireworks," Thomas said, but he added that anyone caught with "hundreds of dollars" worth is likely to face a fine and even possible imprisonment of up to six months.
Thomas added that in the period leading up to the Fourth of July about 35 fire marshals from across the state will be assigned to search for illegal fireworks.
Police officials say they are primarily on the lookout for the most common injury-causers: M-80s, M-100s, cherry bombs and silver salutes, all of which contain more than 50 milligrams of explosive powder and are banned by federal law.
Each category of fireworks bears a distinctive size and shape: silver salutes are generally up to two inches in length and silver in color; M-80s are usually red and one to 1 1/2 inches in length; and cherry bombs are red, spherical and about one inch in diameter. Each of these explosives contain varying amounts of black powder or flash powder which, when ignited, produces loud booms.
Other chemicals that give off bright light and produce distinctive colors are used in fireworks to produce more spectacular visual effects: roman candles shoot off a series of balls of light, and aerial shells might contain hundreds of stars. Certain colors, such as blue and bright white, are especially difficult to produce and are the mark of a higher quality firework.
Fireworks sold at drugstores, convenience stores and roadside stands are generally reliable, officials said, but they warned against buying fireworks from individuals selling them from their homes or cars. Prices for legal fireworks vary from region to region, but snakes generally sell for $12 a gross, sparklers for $20 a gross, and fountains for $28 a gross.
Prices of illegal fireworks vary widely, generally increasing as the Fourth of July approaches. A mat, or group of 80 packs of firecrackers, can sell from between $4 to $10, M-80s and cherry bombs range in price from 50 cents to $1.50 each, and bottle rockets and roman candles generally range in price from $5 to $12 a gross.
Fireworks that are legal should have the name and address of the manufacturer as well as a warning label describing precautions that should be followed for proper use, a Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman said. Buyers should also check that the fireworks are labeled "Class C," the only kind that may be legally sold to the public.
Large fireworks manufacturers, such as Grucci Brothers Co., whose products are used primarily in professionally operated displays and who are scheduled to produce the annual Independence Day fireworks display on the Mall this week, are reporting "the best sales ever in the history of the industry."
"Unlike the '60s when people were burning the flag, people are now caught up in this surge of patriotic fever," said a representative of Grucci Brothers.
FIREWORKS REGULATIONS DISTRICT -- Sparklers, fountainheads, spinning wheels and helicopters are legal, according to D.C. Fire Inspector James Peters. But firecrackers, skyrockets and sparklers that shoot a distance of more than 20 inches are prohibited. Consumers should ask to see a license or certification at stores where they buy fireworks, he said. The penalty for use of illegal fireworks is a fine of up to $300 and 10 days in jail, he said, while vendors who sell illegal fireworks can lose their business licenses. MARYLAND -- All fireworks, including sparklers, are illegal in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and in Baltimore. In all other counties, only sparklers that contain gold-colored labels -- specifying that they do not contain chlorates or perchlorates -- are legal, according to Maryland Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Bob Thomas. There is a $250 fine for possession or use of illegal fireworks, and a $1,000 fine and a maximum six-month jail sentence for distribution. VIRGINIA -- The laws vary: Prince William, Fauquier, Stafford, Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington counties and the City of Fairfax ban fireworks that shoot a distance of more than 12 feet or that shoot projectiles or missiles. Alexandria bans the use or sale of any type of fireworks. Violators are subject to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.