As inferno fades from memory, some Iowans still wary of Fourth of July fireworks

Despite Iowa lawmakers’ decision to lift an 86-year-old fireworks ban, many city officials are resisting the use of pyrotechnics, worrying about their fire creating potential. 

Charlie Neibergall/AP
A man holds packages of fireworks before buying them in a tent owned by the Iowa Fireworks Company, in Adel, Iowa, on Friday, June 16, 2017. Decades after a dropped sparkler started a raging fire in Spencer, Iowa, lawmakers warily lifted a firework ban. However, the state does not yet unanimously agree on the specifics of its firework legislation.

On a scorching day 86 years ago, a dropped sparkler ignited an inferno that roared through much of the small city of Spencer, Iowa, and led to a statewide fireworks ban that endured for generations.

Fireworks have since become legal in most of the country and Iowa legislators voted this year to end the bans. But with the Fourth of July approaching, officials in many cities are resisting fireworks sales and prohibiting people from setting off newly legal bottle rockets, firecrackers and roman candles.

"They've made it really tough," said Todd Wallace, who gave up on plans to sell fireworks from a tent in a grassy field on the edge of Des Moines. "There would be no impact on anybody, but the city said, 'no can do.'"

Many Iowa officials remain keenly aware of the blaze that engulfed about 100 buildings in Spencer on a 97-degree F., windy June day in 1931, when a fire started by a sparkler at Bjornstad's drugstore quickly spread.

Iowa lawmakers were prodded to end the ban by polls showing support for legalizing fireworks, the prospect of $1.5 million annually in sales tax revenue and the conclusion that if 43 other states allowed consumer fireworks, Iowa should join in.

Cities are supposed to allow the sale of consumer fireworks, comprised of products with more pop and sizzle than sparklers but much smaller than professional displays. Some communities have passed restrictive zoning rules, outlawed fireworks use or limited the crackles and bangs to just a few hours on the Fourth.

Des Moines technically abided by the new law's sale requirement, but limited retailers to industrial areas and required that temporary tents be broken down and the inventory removed for six hours each day.

"It's virtually impossible in Des Moines," said Zach Terhark, co-owner of the newly created Iowa Fireworks Company, which has started selling fireworks from tents in more than a dozen spots across the state.

Among Terhark's locations is a tent in the small community of Adel, which is 25 miles from Des Moines but still one of the closest spots to the state's largest city.

The sales restrictions and limits on setting off fireworks have left state Sen. Jake Chapman exasperated.

"If you listen to the opponents of this law, you'd think everyone is going to die and the whole state is going to burn down," said Senator Chapman, who was among the strongest supporters of the legislation.

Chapman doesn't begrudge cities from outlawing the use of fireworks, but he argues local officials are violating state law by creating barriers to selling the explosives. If cities persist, Chapman said the Legislature might take up the issue next year to specifically outlaw such restrictions.

Some vendors also are taking action. The nation's largest fireworks wholesaler asked a judge to block the sales restrictions in Des Moines.

"The city's pretty dramatic action left us little option" said Tim Coonan, a Des Moines lawyer who is presenting Alabama-based American Promotional Events.

On Thursday, United States District Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger denied the company's motion for a temporary injunction which would have forced the city to allow fireworks sales in locations other than industrial areas on the city's outskirts.

But in another lawsuit brought by Nebraska-based Bellino Fireworks against several Des Moines suburbs, the judge said those cities cannot require Bellino to get a special permit to sell fireworks and two other cities cannot ban fireworks sales from temporary structures. The judge also stopped a Des Moines suburb from requiring additional insurance coverage.

Some cities have been more accommodating than Des Moines.

In Waterloo, several businesses are selling fireworks and residents can set off the explosives for five days around the Fourth. It's the same in Sioux City, where sales are allowed and people can light fireworks for more than a week. And in Cedar Rapids, the state's second-largest city, residents can set off fireworks for all of June and part of July.

At a fireworks stand in Adel, customers welcomed a chance to buy locally instead of traveling to neighboring states. While acknowledging the dangers of fireworks, some said local officials are overstating the risks.

"Everything has its dangers," said Don Paulsen of Ames.

Deb Crowl, who lives in the country, west of Des Moines, said she's ready to stop making the 90-minute drive to Missouri to buy fireworks.

"We've been going to Missouri for years," she said. "You see so many Iowa license plates down there."

One community that won't legalize the use of fireworks is Spencer, which long ago rebuilt its downtown but never forgot the devastation of its sparkler-caused fire.

"You don't ever forget your history, especially when that history is the destruction of your downtown," said Mayor Reynold Peterson.

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