Come tonight, bottle rockets, mortars, roman candles and fireworks of other forms and fashions will light the sky above Savikko Park in Douglas, one of the most popular spots for Juneau residents to scratch their pyrotechnic itch. The whizzes and screams of firecrackers, punctuated by loud bangs and showers of sparks will likely be observable in other parks throughout the city, too.
But this may not be the case come next Fourth of July if one group of Juneau residents has its way.
Juneau Residents for Action on Fireworks, a group of about 100 people fed up with the use of fireworks in public parks, is requesting a prohibition of fireworks from all city-owned parks.
“This is an effort to prevent the spread of fireworks abuse from neighborhoods into parks,” said Chris Prussing, a Thane Road resident and the unofficial spokesperson for the group.
Fireworks are currently permitted on all city land, a fact that Prussing said didn’t become problematic until about five years ago when, due to a change in regulations, fireworks that used to be off-limits to most people became legal to possess and discharge. These fireworks — previously reserved exclusively for professional displays — include mortars, which pack a much larger punch than the average bottle rocket.
Prussing’s group is not “anti-fireworks,” she said. In fact, she plans to shoot off some fireworks of her own in celebration of Independence Day. It’s the larger, formerly display-grade fireworks that she and the other members of Juneau Residents for Action on Fireworks said crossed the line.
“A lot of these things are dangerous if misused,” Prussing said. “Sure, they’re appealing. They’re the ones with the big loud bangs and the colors, but they’re designed to be loud, and people with pets and PTSD are being driven crazy.”
The way she and her peers see it, an outright ban on fireworks in city parks is the best way to reign in what they see as an increasingly out-of-control fireworks use.
The group has reached out to the city’s Parks and Recreation Director Kirk Duncan about the matter, requesting a year-round prohibition that includes July 3 and 4.
“Celebrating holidays in parks with hazardous and noisy fireworks is no more appropriate than drunken disorderly parties, and an affront and deterrent to other park users,” the group wrote to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee in a letter dated June 24.
Parks and Rec Director, Kirk Duncan said he will be the person who ultimately has to decide whether to impose the requested ban. He’ll be taking public comment from all interested parties at the PRAC’s September meeting, which will likely be on Sept. 13. The meeting was originally supposed to take place tomorrow, but Duncan moved it back a couple months to make sure that anybody who might want to attend had enough notice.
“If we’re going to do this, I really want to do this well,” Duncan told the Empire. “I don’t want people to think that we’re trying to steamroll them here. I want to make sure we have good public input, good public process.”
Fireworks are already prohibited in state and federal parks, and Juneau Residents for Action on Fireworks would like to see city parks adopt similar rules. Kevin Murphy, chief ranger for Southeast Area State Parks, said he thought such a ban would be a good idea, although he recognized he’s not in a place to make that call.
“I just think it would be good if the three organizations had similar regulations on fireworks,” he said. “People seem to think that parks are a safe haven for fireworks, and I don’t know why. It’d certainly be a lot easier if we’re all sending the same message: Fireworks are not welcome in our parks.”
Murphy said that state parks prohibit fireworks because they are loud, dangerous and a fire hazard — although that’s more applicable to drier regions of the state than rainy Southeast, he said.
Though fireworks are illegal in state and federal parks, Murphy said they are still commonly used at places like Eagle Beach. Regulation of the fireworks ban is not easy.
“It’s hard to enforce, particularly for us because of staffing,” he said. “But that doesn’t make fireworks acceptable.”
The Juneau Police Department, too, has struggled with enforcement when it comes to fireworks, according to JPD spokesperson Lt. David Campbell. The city may not have laws pertaining to where fireworks can be set off, but it does restrict when they can be discharged.
The city’s noise ordinance, which was enacted in 2014, prohibits residents from making “any loud, unnecessary or unusual noise” that annoys their neighbors or makes it difficult to sleep.
Under the ordinance, setting off fireworks within earshot of people who don’t want to hear them after 10 p.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. on weekends is against the law and could result in a citation.
“It sounded like a good idea at the time,” Prussing said of the ordinance. “Unfortunately, the practicality of it is turning out to be a problem.”
That’s because, Campbell said, that police officers “almost need to catch the person in the act” in order to cite somebody for violating the noise ordinance, which isn’t easy when it comes to fireworks.
“When the officer gets to the place, it’s typically over,” Campbell said. “Being able to isolate where it’s coming from and who did it, from an investigation point of view, is a difficult thing to do.”
Since the noise ordinance was enacted two years ago, the police department has issued about 25 noise-violation citations, according to Prussing who recently requested the data from JPD. None of those citations were for fireworks, even though the department received more than 250 fireworks-related complaints during that time. JPD was unable to provide the data to the Empire by press time, but police spokesperson Erann Kalwara was able to confirm the number of fireworks-related complaints.
Campbell is reasonably confident, however, that JPD would be able to better enforce a fireworks ban in city parks if one were to be issued. Because such a ban could prohibit people from possessing fireworks in a public park, Campbell said that police officers could ask people with fireworks to leave parks or seize the fireworks if need be. JPD has no such authority when it comes to the noise ordinance because it’s the use, not possession of fireworks, that is illegal.
Prussing said that complaining about fireworks in Juneau doesn’t typically make people popular. In fact, historically complaints about fireworks — and especially attempts to ban them — have been met with explosive opposition, “a torrent of resentment,” she called it.
She hopes this won’t be the case at the September PRAC meeting, and she has reason to believe that it won’t be. So far, the sentiment seems to be running 80 percent in favor of the ban and 20 percent against it, she said.
“The people who are complaining about fireworks are actually reasonable people,” she said. “We’re your neighbors, and we’re nice people.”
• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.