Crime & Courts

August 5, 2012

Business owner got the only Wichita fireworks citation issued in July

For most, the dazzle of Independence Day fireworks is already a distant memory.

For most, the dazzle of Independence Day fireworks is already a distant memory.

But one Wichita man is still dealing with the remnants of a July 4 celebration more than a month later after a rooftop fireworks show drew fire crews to his downtown Wichita smoke shop, 42 Degrees Below.

Business owner Jeremiah Shepherd has a court date later this month to respond to a citation alleging he discharged illegal fireworks, which caused a small fire and minor damage atop the building he rents to run his business.

It’s a ticket seldom issued by authorities, fire officials said.

So rare that Shepherd – who declined to comment – was the sole person to receive a citation over the July 4 holiday. He is just the second person given a ticket this year, despite the confiscation of prohibited fireworks by authorities several times during the nine days fireworks could be legally discharged in Wichita city limits.

Seldom-written citation

Last year, authorities issued just three citations for illegal fireworks in Wichita, said Wichita Fire Capt. Stuart Bevis, all on or near the holiday.

So far this year, local law enforcement has written two: Shepherd’s ticket and one issued June 15 to Sandra Hernandez, who pleaded no contest on July 24 to possessing the fireworks at a house on North Piatt. She was fined $25, plus $75 in court costs, municipal court records show.

Shepherd is scheduled to appear in court at 3 p.m. Aug. 20. Any fine to be levied will be determined at the hearing, a municipal court clerk said.

Usually authorities give people a break, fire officials said: They confiscate illegal fireworks in lieu of writing tickets despite hundreds of fireworks-related complaints called into Sedgwick County dispatchers.

Wichita bans several of types of fireworks, including Roman candles, bottle rockets and any fireworks that emit a shower of sparks wider or higher than 6 feet.

“We try to be nice, you know, just give them a warning and take their fireworks,” fire investigator Mark Reibenspies said – unless there’s evidence they caused a fire or property damage.

That’s what happened in Shepherd’s case, he said.

Fire officials allege that on July 3 or 4, Shepherd and others ignited fireworks atop the roof of 42 Degrees Below, 1203 E. Douglas. A box of fireworks debris smoldered.

Shortly before 1 a.m. July 4, someone saw light smoke wafting from the roof and called 911. Fire crews quickly doused the spent fireworks, according to an incident report.

An investigation showed the smoldering debris from Saturn missile-type fireworks sparked a small rooftop fire, causing more than $500 in damage to the building’s asphalt-treated roof, the report shows. Discharging Saturn missiles within city limits is banned under city guidelines.

“It was obvious that this (the fireworks) was the reason the fire started,” said Reibenspies, who wrote Shepherd’s citation. “Then, you know, it would be a tough sell to tell my chief that I didn’t write a ticket for illegal fireworks.

“He was totally cooperative and said, ‘OK, I understand,’ ” Reibenspies said of Shepherd.

During the nine days they could be sold and discharged legally this year, investigators estimate fireworks caused $210,000 in property damage – up from $118,000 in 2011 for the same time period, Deputy Fire Chief Ron Aaron said.

More than half of that amount – $120,000 – came from a house fire on July 4, he said. Fireworks debris thrown in an outside trash sparked a blaze at a home near 13th and Oliver on July 1, accounting for another $60,000 loss .

Fireworks were also to blame for $20,000 in damage to playground equipment at Ray Woodman park on June 29, Aaron added.

Enforcement problems

Despite the damage, Aaron said the fire department is looking for ways to increase education about fireworks, rather than writing more tickets. One of the reasons is that enforcement can be difficult, he said.

Given the sheer number of fireworks discharged over the holiday, Aaron said getting to everyone who breaks the law is tough.

More than 40 fire units patrolled Wichita on July 4, watching for possible fires and prohibited fireworks. But that’s not enough, fire officials say.

“It wouldn’t be hard to catch them, but the amount would be insurmountable because when we drive around we see where they are being launched all around,” Reibenspies said.

“There’s just not enough of us.”

Aaron agreed.

“It’s a difficult enforcement process,” he said.

Tents in Haysville, Maize, Goddard and other nearby towns often sell fireworks banned in Wichita, making it easy for anyone willing to drive a few miles to get them.

Jurisdictional boundaries that confuse some residents also pose a problem, Aaron said. On the fringes of northwest Wichita, for example, some residents have a Maize mailing address, but are living within Wichita police and fire jurisdictions – leading some to mistakenly think the fireworks they buy at a tent in Maize are OK to shoot off at home.

Others just don’t know which fireworks are allowed under the law.

“Many of our people (residents) are trying to be in compliance, but those are the issues when things are not as clear as they need to be,” he said.

So how do you fix the problem?

Aaron suggests a “shoot them where you buy them” approach to avoid crossing jurisdictional lines.

Educating the public is also key, he said.

The fire department provides a list of approved fireworks, which is published annually in The Eagle. Copies are available in the city clerk’s office and at the fire department. Lists of approved fireworks sold by larger Wichita vendors are also posted on the department’s website.

“We try to be sensitive to the public and those kinds of things,” Aaron said. “ … Sometimes our customers or citizens, they don’t know. So fire investigators will have a discussions with them” rather than write tickets.

Fire crews “are not out there looking for a reason to make someone unhappy and get them in trouble, so to speak,” he said.

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