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Move to make fireworks legal hits sharp opposition

As state lawmakers weigh legislation to legalize the sale and use of fireworks in Massachusetts, the plan is meeting sharp opposition from area fire officials.

Proponents say the bill would provide the state with an economic boost by opening it to an industry that currently operates in 46 other states.

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But the idea of allowing ordinary residents to light up the sky with pyrotechnics is not sitting well with local fire officials, who warn it could result in a proliferation of fireworks-related accidents and fires.

The bill gives each city or town the option of issuing permits to use fireworks and licenses for businesses sell them. In communities that do not choose that option, the sale or use of fireworks would remain illegal.

Revere Fire Chief Gene Doherty said he is well aware that there is already widespread use of consumer fireworks by the general public, noting that from his home, he often sees people setting them off on Revere Beach. But he opposes making it legal.

“It’s extremely risky the way a lot of people do it,’’ he said. “Obviously, there are people who do it with care and in the proper manner. But I don’t think it’s worth allowing too many people that don’t use these precautions to have that ability.’’

The bill, filed by state Representative Richard Bastien, a Gardner Republican, is before the legislature’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, which held a hearing Feb. 27.

“I’m hoping through this and maybe other reforms. . . to lessen the incentive we give to people to drive out of state or shop out of state,’’ Bastien said. “It will enhance jobs and economic activities in the Commonwealth.’’

Massachusetts is the only New England state that fully bans fireworks, according to Bastien.

Citing an estimate from an industry firm, Bastien said that legalizing fireworks in Massachusetts would result in $40 million in annual fireworks sales in Massachusetts, generating about $2 million in annual sales tax revenue for the state.

Bastien said legalizing fireworks would actually bring greater controls to their usage.

“The situation we have now is more akin to the Wild West,’’ he said. “You have people using fireworks illegally at all different times.’’ With a permitting process, he said, the local fire chief would know who was using the fireworks, and where and when it was occurring. He noted that the bill would increase fines for illegal usage of fireworks.

Bastien said that federal statistics show that the number of fireworks-related injuries nationwide has fallen from 11,000 in 1976, when fireworks were banned in 32 states, to 8,800 when only four states banned them.

But Chelsea Fire Chief Robert Better said of legalizing fireworks, “The risk isn’t worth the benefit.’’

Noting that Chelsea at 1.9 square miles is among the most densely populated cities in the country, Better said, “To add fireworks to that mixture would be disastrous. We have a big enough problem with fireworks coming in from New Hampshire. We’ve had bad fires caused from this.’’

Lynn Fire Chief Dennis Carmody said, “We have fires starting in gutters every year from fireworks,’’ referring to house fires that are touched off when leaves in a gutter catch fire from illegal fireworks.

“We spend a lot of time and energy in fire safety programs in school teaching kids not to play with fire. . . on one side, and then on the other we turn around and say it’s all right to use fireworks,’’ Carmody said.

Danvers Fire Chief Kevin P. Farrell, who also opposes the bill, said over the years, the town has had “a couple of structural fires where the ignition source was the use of fireworks.’’

Farrell also recalled a near-accident where a boy attempted to saw through an unexploded fireworks shell. Fortunately, he was stopped by his father. Had he sawed all the way through the shell, Farrell said, it could have gone off “and probably taken the young child’s life.’’

Farrell also argued that having to administer fireworks permitting would place a burden on fire departments, which “barely have enough resources to maintain the permitting we have now.’’

Bastien said the bill calls for creating a statewide fund generated from fees and fines that would help communities allowing fireworks to recoup their costs. But Farrell expressed skepticism that those funds would be enough to cover all the costs involved.

Representative Linda Dean Campbell, a Methuen Democrat who is a member of the legislative committee, said she would support the bill “as long as there is some flexibility that would allow for a community to set some guidelines and to opt in and out.’’ She also wants to see what safety provisions are in place in states where fireworks are now legal.

“I think most of the border communities have an interest in this from an economic point of view,’’ Campbell said.

“Certainly, it’s so easy for us here to just travel a few miles and purchase fireworks. So I think there is an economic benefit as far as the Commonwealth is concerned.’’

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