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    Popularity of illegal fireworks soars

    Officials say there were more fireworks shot off by residents than ever before.

    By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 6, 2002


    Perhaps it was the wave of patriotism sweeping the country, but authorities said they noted a definite increase in the number of illegal fireworks shot off in the Tampa Bay area this Fourth of July.

    "As I was waiting for the event up here with my kids, almost every car had their own display going," said Spring Hill fire Chief J.J. Morrison, who watched the Weeki Wachee fireworks display Thursday night. "They were setting off every kind of fireworks you could imagine. I was a bit concerned."

    The story was the same in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater, where a 12-year-old boy was struck in the eye by what police think were illegal fireworks along the Courtney Campbell Parkway.

    The situation so disturbed Clearwater Fire Marshal Randy that he had ordinances from other areas spread on his desk before him. He said he planned to recommend to Clearwater city commissioners a local law that would make it more difficult for people to obtain the kinds of fireworks that explode and scream across the sky, leaving a trail of sparks.

    "Yes, we have seen an increase this year," Hinder said. "They were all over. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing them. If you really wanted to get a show, you should have seen Edgewater Drive in Dunedin. That's where they all were."

    But if you ask St. Petersburg police spokesman George Kajtsa, they were all in his neighborhood.

    Hoping for a quiet night at home, Kajtsa said he and his wife had rented a movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and had planned to skip the fireworks.

    "My wife said we didn't need to go down to Straub Park because the fireworks on my street were just as big," he said. "My wife thought they were going to set our house on fire. But the thing is, how do you enforce that kind of thing?"

    The problem, according to fire and police officials, is a state law that has a gaping loophole.

    Technically, it is against the law to set off any kind of fireworks that leave the ground or blow up. But you can buy them if you sign a form that says they're for industrial purposes, such as using them to scare birds away from fish hatcheries and farms.

    That leaves to law enforcement the job of trying to chase down each person who launches one, which is what St. Petersburg fire Capt. Michael Moore said he watched in Coachman Park in Clearwater. He was off duty and was there to enjoy the show.

    "There were quite a few, and I saw quite a few of them get confiscated," Moore said. "There were more, however, than the on-duty officers could handle."

    Kajtsa said St. Petersburg police received hundreds of calls about illegal fireworks, but the volume makes it difficult to enforce the law. Furthermore, it is a misdemeanor.

    St. Petersburg, as well as many other jurisdictions, did not have an increase in injuries or fires because of the expanded pyrotechnical efforts of holiday celebrants.

    In Miami, however, two teenage boys were injured by illegal fireworks Thursday. One suffered burns on his legs, and another sustained burns to his shoulder.

    In East Lake, district fire Chief Bill Walker said it was something of a miracle that no one was injured given the number of people launching fireworks. He, too, said it seemed that there were more backyard fireworks being set off this year than in previous years.

    "There weren't any organized fireworks in East Lake, but there were plenty of people shooting them off," he said. "You have to be careful with them. They're like mortars. They're going to come down somewhere."

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