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Consequences of state fireworks law difficult to live with

People in the area of the Hughesville Fairgrounds this past Saturday were treated to a spectacular fireworks display made even more special by the presence of a nearly full moon.

The 25th annual Set the Night to Music Fireworks Extravaganza put on by Backyard Broadcasting provided a safe and enjoyable way to view the traditional patriotic display while maintaining social distancing, and what a display it was!

For many people who live in the eastern end of the county, the display could be viewed from their yards and porches without the need to gather in the type of large crowd that is more typical of a July 4 evening here.

This was a blessing to behold, for sure.

Back in Williamsport, many people may have felt more cursed by fireworks than blessed.

In fact, city Fire Chief Mark Killian likened the city to “a war zone” because of the amount of consumer fireworks that have been set off this summer.

A state law that was passed three years ago by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf two years ago made it legal for people to purchase more powerful fireworks than previously had been allowed for personal use.

It’s not only Williamsport officials who had concerns with this law. What the Career Fire Chiefs Association and Pennsylvania Fire Chiefs thought at the time has been “proven right,” according to Killian, with the amount of fireworks set off this summer.

Even though the city responded to the 2018 state law — Act 43 — with an ordinance placing limits on the use of consumer fireworks, it has been difficult to enforce.

The police need witnesses to testify, but most people filing complaints of unlawful fireworks activity are reluctant. As Councilwoman Bonnie Katz observed, “You’re asking neighbor to turn in neighbor.”

That sets up a difficult situation for anyone who wants to live in peace.

The city ordinance sets a time frame in which consumer fireworks are permitted, but their use is prohibited within 150 feet of a structure, an important consideration in the prevention of fireworks-related fires. The fact that the devices need to be kept 150 feet from any structure to be ignited in Williamsport would seem to make most — if not all — of the city off limits.

“They go too late, cause anxiety in pets and people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the current length of time in number of days allowed is obviously much too generous,” Council President Randall J. Allison said.

While Council’s public safety committee is reviewing the ordinance with a mind for tightening it up, a better solution would be for the state Legislature to repeal Act 43. Short of that, there is legislation in the state Senate — Senate Bill 932 — that would prohibit private use of fireworks in cities with populations of 58,000 or more.

That is not enough.

Killian would like the bill to be amended to include “all communities” regardless of population.

This makes sense to us. The state Legislature unleashed this problem not only on Williamsport but on communities statewide, leaving it to local police and fire personnel to deal with the consequences.

We call on the Legislature to take up this matter with expediency, to consider the experiences of this very hot summer and to put public safety at the front of the conversation.

In the meantime, our hope is that the big fireworks display will be back downtown by next year, the pandemic and crowds no longer a concern.

And that, we would hope, may quell the desire to set off consumer fireworks in neighborhoods where houses are just too close for comfort — and safety.

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