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Officials warn against illegal fireworks this Fourth of July holiday

Brennan Phillips — explosives enforcement officer with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — demonstrates one type of illegal firework Wednesday, July 3, at the Seattle Police Athletic Association in Tukwila.
Simone Alicea
/
KNKX
Brennan Phillips — explosives enforcement officer with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — demonstrates one type of illegal firework Wednesday, July 3, at the Seattle Police Athletic Association in Tukwila.";s:

There are plenty of ways to buy legal firecrackers in communities around Western Washington, but officials are warning against illegal fireworks that can cause serious injuries.

Cities and counties across the state have varying laws governing the sale and use of fireworks, and the federal government regulates fireworks on tribal lands. But some fireworks are flat-out illegal or only legal in professional displays.

The Puget Sound region has a problem with consumers getting injured by these illicit fireworks, says Brennan Phillips, an explosives enforcement officer with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"A combination of alcohol, ignorance, or being impaired, not having the training or really the knowledge, coupled with a lot of explosive potential can be a recipe for disaster," Phillips said. 

This display shows the kinds of illegal fireworks officials are on the lookout for this Fourth of July holiday.
Credit Simone Alicea / KNKX
/
KNKX
This display shows the kinds of illegal fireworks and explosive devices officials are on the lookout for this Fourth of July holiday. They include fireworks smuggled from other countries, homemade fireworks, and those typically reserved for professional displays.

These fireworks are meant for professionals, but sold illicitly to casual users, smuggled from China or Mexico, or homemade. Phillips says buyers usually know what they're looking for and often pay more for the big explosion.

"It's just like any other contraband," Phillips said. "The folks that are selling them know that they're illegal, and they're going to charge you a premium for it."

In a demonstration on wooden cutouts at the Seattle Police Athletic Association and gun range in Tukwila, Phillips showed how easy it can be to lose a finger or even a hand by mishandling these fireworks. 

An illicit firework blasted the thumb off of this wooden cutout at a fire range at the Seattle Police Department Athletic Association in Tukwila.
Credit Simone Alicea / KNKX
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KNKX
An illicit firework blasted the thumb off of this wooden cutout at a fire range at the Seattle Police Department Athletic Association in Tukwila.

The devices were triggered remotely. Sometimes there was a delay between the trigger and the explosion, while some of the fireworks exploded immediately. Others appeared to trigger a relatively benign sparkler before a larger explosion.

Phillips said Harborview Medical Center alone sees about 20-30 injuries from such fireworks each year.  There were a total of 209 firework-related injuries across Washington last year, according to the state fire marshal.

Setting off or selling these fireworks can result in both local and federal penalties, including fines or jail time.

Legal fireworks also can be dangerous, leading to injuries or fires. Here are some tips on how to stay safe:

  • Wear safety glasses and gloves;
  • Clear out the area of all flammable items and avoid shooting fireworks in areas with dry trees or vegetation;
  • Have a bucket of water or hose handy if a fire does develop;
  • Never light fireworks in your hand, and leave the lighting to adults;
  • Always light one firework at a time;
  • Clean up fireworks debris and soak used fireworks in water.

A Seattle native and former knkx intern, Simone Alicea has returned to the Pacific Northwest from covering breaking news at the Chicago Sun-Times. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.