TRAVERSE CITY —
A two-week stretch of hot, dry weather raised concerns among local fire officials that loosened state fireworks laws could boost fire hazards.
A Tuesday morning thunderstorm did little to calm their fears.
At least three grass and brush fires scorched land in the Traverse City area in recent days. Area officials, meanwhile, reported a booming increase in complaints about fireworks use in the run-up to the July 4 holiday.
Those officials worry a new state law that allows larger, more explosive fireworks that can zip into the air heightens fire dangers, particularly since temperatures are expected to hover near 90 degrees with little chance of additional rain in coming days.
"The change in the law has really created a dangerous situation, especially with our dry weather right now," said Brian Belcher, fire marshal and assistant chief for the Grand Traverse Metro fire department. "We have not gotten a rain significant enough to dampen the fire danger a whole lot. It took the edge off, but there is still that danger and hazard out there."
Fire danger 'low'?
Rick Walters enjoyed shooting off larger fireworks when he lived in Louisiana, but the Long Lake Township resident said he's a bit concerned by dry conditions here.
"I think the rain (Tuesday) really helped," Walters said as he carted off a fireworks purchase from a tent on Munson Avenue in Traverse City.
Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials on Tuesday rated fire danger low for Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Manistee, and Kalkaska counties, but a sign at the Traverse City field office on Tuesday afternoon showed fire danger "very high."
Rod Rader, district fire management supervisor at the DNR's Traverse City office, said he expects fire danger to be low to moderate today, but it could jump to high if humidity is low or the wind picks up. He urged caution for anyone who plans to use fireworks.
"There are pockets where we didn't get the rain, and if somebody sets fireworks off they could very easily set some fires," Rader said.
Matt Wermuth runs two fireworks tents for TNT Fireworks in Traverse City. A former part-time firefighter for Elmwood Township, Wermuth said he heard ample discussion about the dry weather prior to Tuesday's rain.
"It's lowered their concern, but we still tell them to be safe, wet the grass down and be courteous to your neighbor about where they land and the noise," Wermuth said. "We remind them there is a local noise ordinance too, if they light them off late at night."
Business is booming thanks to the law change, said Luke Lints, who is working his second year selling fireworks for Wermuth.
"We have tons more people here and we are selling thousands of dollars more a day," Lints said.
Dry fire fuel abounds
Belcher said the increase in fireworks and heavier use in residential areas has become obvious.
"You used to see them mostly along the shorelines of the lakes, but now every subdivision has them," Belcher said. "I think the difference is now people realize it's legal so they are not shy about using them."
Fireworks aren't just a threat to open forest or grassland, Belcher said. They have also caused several structure fires across the state.
Wooded neighborhoods, accumulations of leaves and pine needles, wooden decks or wood mulch against a house can act as fuel for errant fireworks that can quickly spread to houses, Belcher said.
Traverse City differs from the townships' open spaces environment, but fire remains a threat, said Fire Chief Jim Tuller.
New York resident McKenna Towers, 15, accompanied older relatives to buy fireworks for a family reunion in East Bay Township. They were unaware of the area's recent dry weather, but McKenna said the revelers planned to use fireworks safely, including watering launch areas and keeping buckets of water on hand.
But it's not just where flying fireworks go up, it's also where sparks and hot ashes land, Belcher said. State law doesn't cover all scenarios in which fireworks might land on other properties, but there are felony provisions for anyone who shoots off fireworks that cause a structure fire on someone else's property.
"I just urge people to restrain from using them in residential areas regardless of the holiday until we get a good soaking rain to bring our fire danger down," Belcher said. "Leave them in the box, but if you can't, use common sense and think about both where you are shooting them, as well as where they are going to come down."