Inspectors make sure Wichita-area fireworks stands are safe

Since Thursday, scores of fireworks stands in the Wichita area have been using their annual allotment of up to nine days under state law to sell things that pop and sparkle in the night.

It takes planning, hard work and investment to operate something that can sell for a limited time. It is a business, and in many cases, it also is a way for churches, teams and youth groups to raise money. But from a public-safety perspective, each stand pulls together a lot of people and a lot of potentially risky material. That’s why the state and cities set safety requirements for fireworks vendors. In cities across the state, fire department inspectors have been checking to make sure the outlets are operating safely.

Andover Fire and Rescue has a fireworks vendor inspection checklist, based on state law. Among the requirements are “No smoking” signs. There can be no “stick rockets” for sale. There must be adequate fire extinguishers.

The Office of the State Fire Marshal notes that fireworks sales aren’t permitted before June 27 or after July 5, that “bottle rockets and skyrockets” are prohibited, that a “Fireworks – No Smoking” sign must be 2 inches high on a contrasting background and posted at each entrance or within 10 feet of every aisle and that there must be at least two exits from the retail sales area. Aisles must have a “minimum clear width” of 48 inches.

Cities can adopt laws that are more restrictive than state law.

The state fire marshal’s office isn’t aware of any recent fireworks-stand fires in Kansas, said agency spokesman Kevin Doel.

Unlike Kansas, “some states allow year-round sales, while others totally prohibit retail sales,” Doel said in an e-mail.

In Wichita, one of the things fire department inspectors check is whether retail fireworks tents are flame-retardant, said acting Fire Marshal Stuart Bevis.

No one is allowed to park within 20 feet of the tent, for a couple of reasons, Bevis said. Part of it is to account for someone who might be smoking in a car and throws out a cigarette. Another reason is to keep moving vehicles back from the populated tent. He recalled an incident in north Wichita in which someone left a car in drive when he or she got out near a fireworks tent. The running vehicle headed for the tent before it ran into another vehicle. Depending on the size of the tent, there can be an exit-signage requirement. Most vendors have been selling for years and are familiar with the requirements, including the permit process, Bevis said.

In Wichita, there are about 30 tents to inspect, he said. Inspectors visited the tents on Thursday, partly to make sure that the fireworks being sold are legal within the city.

In Andover, there are eight vendor sites, said Deputy Fire Chief Mike Roosevelt. One of the sites is a large tent that sits back from 159th and U.S. 54. Five of the eight vendors operate within a mile of each other on U.S. 54.

Across the highway from the large structure at 159th sits a 13,000-square-foot fireworks retail store operated by Wholesale Fireworks. Customers can shop in air-conditioning along aisles lined by colorfully packaged fireworks. One of the fireworks is called “Reality TV Fountain.” The labeling on all of the fireworks discloses the risks, with words like “Warning,” “Flammable” and “Shoots flaming balls.”

The store takes many precautions to keep things safe, said Jacob Marietta, operating manager with Wholesale Fireworks, which he described as a fifth-generation family business that has grown into a major Midwest fireworks retailer. The fireworks come packaged with safety seals covering fuses, Marietta said. The store has extra fire extinguishers, he said. There are cigarette butt cans outside the doors.

“It’s really common sense,” he said. “We don’t have a ton of people try to come in here and smoke.” Employees monitor everything. Fifty to 60 people work there. Overhead lights are designed so they won’t explode and send hot shards onto the fireworks.

The typical fireworks stand is covered by a tent. Inspectors make sure the tents aren’t just flame-retardant but also are properly secured, with proper staking, Roosevelt said.

(A wave of strong storms Thursday night heavily damaged some stands around the Wichita area.)

There can be no open flame within 50 feet of a tent, Roosevelt said.

Over the years, the fire department has developed a good working relationship with the vendors, “and we don’t have compliance issues,” he said.

The goal, he said, “is that the public have a safe and enjoyable holiday season.”

And another thing, he said: Anyone tempted to light fireworks right after they buy them should keep in mind that no fireworks can be shot within 50 feet of the tent, as measured from the stakes.

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