Great Bend City Council voted 7-0 Friday to postpone the shooting of fireworks within the city limits that would normally take place on the Fourth of July. This includes the public display that was scheduled to take place at the Expo grounds west of town.
The ordinance that was approved at the special meeting cites safety concerns, including the hot, dry and windy weather of late. The ordinance states the city council will consider allowing a discharge of fireworks on another date, which it will set once it “can be accomplished without risking the health, safety and welfare of residents in the city of Great Bend, and their property.”
The original wording of the ordinance said the council “may” set a new date for fireworks, but was changed to say it “will” set a date.
“This is a huge fireworks town,” councilman Marty Keenan said. “I want the fireworks vendors to have a soft landing. I want people to know there’s going to be a firecracker day.”
“My thought is (to shoot fireworks) the first Saturday after a sufficient rain,” councilman Dana Dawson said.
All council members spoke about the unprecedented decision. They expressed concern for vendors, and noted it does not curtail the sale of fireworks. But discharging them for now could result in a fine of up to $1,000. Warnings would be at the discretion of law enforcement officers, but anyone caught shooting fireworks can expect, at the least, to have them confiscated, City Attorney Robert Suelter said.
Great Bend Fire Chief Napolitano spoke from a prepared statement which read, “Although I know what I am about to ask is going to be met with some resistance, I believe it is important for the community. I am here today to ask the city council to join other cities and counties in passing an ordinance postponing the discharge of fireworks on July 4th, until we receive sufficient rainfall to alleviate the heightened risk of fire, created by dry and windy conditions. ...”
Napolitano said there were numerous fires this past week, and the fire department’s resources were taxed to the point of requesting mutual aid from neighboring departments. The department always experiences a dramatic increase in call volume on the Fourth of July.
“I am afraid response to each fire or medical emergency will be impossible, almost guaranteeing unnecessary loss of life or property damage,” he said. “I am also concerned for the well-being of my firefighters. Spending extended amounts of time on back-to-back calls in such high heat in bunkers is taxing. We’ve already had one firefighter go down at a fire requiring a trip to the hospital for treatment, and that number is sure to increase as call volume increases.
“While I know this ordinance will be met with disappointment by many, including my own grandchildren, I would not be fulfilling my obligations if I did not ask for its consideration.
“Just to recap my recommendations: I am not asking for a ban on the sale of fireworks – only the discharge – including the display at the airport. I can appreciate the financial burden this has on fireworks dealers and want to minimize that as much as possible. Regarding the alternate date for discharge and the display – that would depend on the weather. However, it would have to come before this council for approval.”
Area farmer Roger Brining expressed concern for his property, which has already experienced five wildfires this month. “I’m a big fan of fireworks,” Brining said. “This is the first year in my life I’ve been scared of the Fourth of July.”
Linda Barnes with T&L Fireworks told the council, “T&L, as a whole, we understand. Our main obligation is to make sure people are safe and the community is safe. We would feel (the postponement) would be the right thing to do.” She encouraged residents of Great Bend to have a good time with family and friends on the Fourth, and to save their fireworks for the much anticipated day when they can be fired. They can be purchased now and stored in a cool dry place, she suggested.
“What you just said here is very noble, and I appreciate your concern for the greater good,” Keenan said.
Another fireworks vendor, Gerry Menges with Menges Rental said allowing one day of fireworks as usual would be safer than having people store them or break the law on the Fourth of July. “If you can buy them, you know they’re going to shoot them,” she said. If fireworks are stored in a home or garage and are somehow set off, insurance might not cover the damage.
Attorney Brock McPherson was also in favor of allowing the discharge of fireworks on the Fourth.
“Since the mid ’70s I’ve argued this,” he said. “Four times in the past the city has attempted to ban fireworks. It’s not unusual for the fire chief to ask for various bans,” and to predict catastrophes that in fact never happen, McPherson said.
“You folks are not looking at the vendors,” he told the council, noting they have invested heavily in inventory and fees paid. In effect, “. “you’re putting the rein on their harvest.”
Most years, Great Bend limits the time for shooting fireworks in town to the hours of 10 a.m. to midnight on July 4.
McPherson questioned the added burden on law enforcement if people cannot legally discharge fireworks this Wednesday. “If people have them, they’re going to shoot them. ... Are you going to haul little kids off to jail?”
Expressing concern for the vendors, councilmen Keenan and Dana Dawson asked if it would be possible to extend the sale of fireworks, so people could buy them just prior to the time they are allowed. Napolitano and Suelter both said state law only allows the sale of fireworks from June 27 to July 5.
Councilman Ken Roberts said he was also “concerned about entrepreneurs,” and asked if the city was more at risk by having people store fireworks.
“The burning is more of a risk at this point,” Napolitano said.
“I’m truly concerned about the firefighters,” councilman Mitch Haney said.
Councilwoman Allene Owen said the general public seems willing to forgo firecrackers for now, but she was also concerned about the vendors. “That’s a big expense that they put out.”
Councilman Randy Myers said he considered voting against the ordinance, since he opposes too much government. “Look at the fires in Colorado and western Kansas,” he said. “I’ve talked to several people about this. Most fear for their property. Others tell me they’re responsible citizens. (But) if you want to go out and light firecrackers in this hot windy weather, you’re being irresponsible.”
Councilman Dale Westhoff asked if the ordinance, which is only for the City of Great Bend, would create a greater risk in the county. At this time, the discharge of fireworks will be allowed in the unincorporated areas of Barton County on the Fourth of the July. However, County Administrator Richard Boeckman, who was also at the meeting, said Homer Kruckenberg, chairman of the Barton County Commission, has asked for fireworks to be on Monday’s county agenda.
“I have prepared a resolution in case the commissioners wish to do this,” Boeckman said, adding he could not speak for the commissioners.
Olmitz, Holyrood and Ellsworth were all taking similar action, Napolitano said.