Sedgwick County residents to weigh in on fireworks law

For years, Gary Balman and his family enjoyed the Fourth of July by shooting off fireworks at their home south of Haysville, a tradition for many Americans.

Then last year, Sedgwick County Fire District No. 1 put up signs reminding residents that fireworks were illegal in the unincorporated areas of the county and warning of fines.

Balman didn't know that since 1979, a law had made it a crime to use or possess fireworks where he and others live outside city limits in the county.

"It had been on the books for a lot of years, but I don't think anybody knew about it and they weren't really enforcing it," he said.

But when Balman saw signs threatening fines of up to $10,000, he said, he celebrated Independence Day without any sparks.

"That got my attention," he said.

This week, Fire Marshal Tim Millspaugh will meet with residents to discuss changing the law.

Millspaugh has admitted it's impossible to enforce the current law.

Some people favor the law, complaining about the loud noise of fireworks. Others have concerns that if the ban were lifted, people would have large parties in the country with fireworks that could start a sizable fire.

County commissioners are considering three options:

* Keeping fireworks illegal.

* Allowing the sale and use of limited types of fireworks, following something along the lines of Wichita's rules, which allow fireworks as long as they don't fly, explode or emit sparks more than 6 feet up or out.

* Deferring to state law, which makes it legal for private property owners to use all consumer-grade fireworks except for bottle rockets, sky rockets and moon rockets.

Balman said the irony — to him, anyway — is that Wichita and Haysville allow fireworks even though houses are closer together there.

"This is private property, the houses are farther apart, and there are hardly any businesses," he said of the area where he lives. "They can shoot all they want in Haysville. But out here, when you have an acre between houses, you can't do nothing."

Even though he went without fireworks on the Fourth, "there were a lot of people in the neighborhood that didn't pay any attention" to the law, he said.

Balman has lived in the area for about 30 years.

Neighbor Dave Carroll said he's been shooting fireworks since moving to the area in 1982. He also said he didn't realize it was illegal to do so.

"We've been lighting stuff out there every year, and we've never had any injuries and never had a problem with the fire department or the sheriff and all of a sudden, the signs come out," Carroll said.

Balman and Carroll said they understand concerns about fields catching on fire, but Carroll said "we're a little neighborhood. We have our barbecue and our little celebration. It's not like we're out burning cornfields and wheatfields down. I think we ought to be able to do what we want. We've done it for years."

Carroll also noted that "technically I have a Haysville address. They can do it, and I can't do it a mile south?"

At an October discussion about fireworks, some commissioners raised concerns from residents in their districts about fireworks scaring livestock. Commissioners said they could specify in a law that fireworks couldn't be shot within a certain distance of livestock.

Residents will be able to suggest their own recommendation at Tuesday's meeting or submit recommendations in a survey.

The county has set up an online survey for residents of unincorporated areas who can't attend the meeting. The county has sent letters giving them access to the survey.