Last July, a family of three was burned out of a Woodbridge home after an illegal bottle rocket set shrubs ablaze and quickly spread to the house. Also that month, fireworks were lodged into the siding of an apartment building in Manassas, causing a smaller, less destructive blaze.
In March, a popular Forest Park High School football player died of injuries he suffered after a bag of illegal fireworks ignited in a car in which he was riding.
The events have prompted an unprecedented effort by Prince William County Fire and Rescue Department to inform the public about fireworks safety and launch an aggressive enforcement plan for the Fourth of July.
"We decided that it was time just based on those three incidents," said Capt. Tim Taylor, a fire and rescue spokesman. "In the past, we have not advertised the fact that most fireworks are illegal in Northern Virginia."
The Fire and Rescue Department has sent out mailings explaining that fireworks must be purchased from authorized vendors who sell fireworks approved by Northern Virginia fire marshals. About 70,000 fliers were placed in the bills of Prince William County Service Authority customers, and thousands more were handed out at offices of Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC) and at a Potomac Nationals game, Taylor said.
Information was also placed in the June edition of Infocus, a county government newsletter that goes to 125,000 households.
Olufunke Owolabi, department spokeswoman, said she reached out to homeowners associations to get the information to residents of those subdivisions. And a video about safety is being shown on Channel 23, the government access channel.
The department has already spent about $7,000 to $8,000 on printing and distributing the fliers, Taylor said. He and Owolabi gave a presentation to the Board of County Supervisors last Tuesday.
Bottle rockets -- the whistling, sparkling fireworks that shoot up in the air, often turning a backyard display into an ersatz professional show -- are the most common illegal devices used each Independence Day, Taylor said.
"The problem is that you have no control over where it goes," he said.
Professional fireworks, often anything a consumer cannot buy from a stand, require a permit. The county issues 50 to 100 permits annually, including to the Potomac Nationals for displays after Saturday games, Taylor said.
In addition to the public education campaign about safety, the department is holding an amnesty period when residents can turn in illegal fireworks for destruction. Residents often do not know what to do with unused fireworks, especially illegal ones, Taylor said.
"You can't shoot 'em off because they're illegal, and it's not something you just throw in the trash," he said. "Three folks have come in and turned them in."
There will be no amnesty Fourth of July weekend, when about 20 fire marshals and police officers will patrol the county looking for illegal fireworks, which will be confiscated, Taylor said.
This is the first year police officers are joining fire marshals on patrol, he said. Last year, about 12 marshals surveyed the county.
Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) said the public should understand that fire marshals have arresting powers. Taylor said people who refuse to turn over illegal fireworks will likely be arrested. The possession of illegal fireworks carries up to a $2,500 fine and one year in jail.
"We're not trying to be the Grinch that stole Christmas," Taylor said. "We want folks to enjoy the Fourth of July, but people need to be safe."
The department recommends that residents attend professional displays July Fourth, such as the Potomac Nationals game and fireworks display, Celebrate America in downtown Manassas and Celebrate Fireworks in Manassas Park.
To make an appointment to turn in illegal fireworks, call 703-792-6360. To report the use of illegal fireworks, call 703-792-6810.