For the second year in a row, Scituate is taking a tougher stance than some of its coastal neighbors and is banning Fourth of July bonfires on the beach.
Brochures compiled by state and local police and fire departments have been placed throughout Scituate outlining the rules, and fire officials say they plan to go door to door to every coastal resident to hand out the guidelines.
“This is to inform people well in advance of the observance what the town’s policy is,” said Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi during a briefing last week. “One of the things we heard from folks after we had a meeting with residents is they would have liked to have been informed earlier.”
Though the ban applies to the entire town, bonfires have been an issue mainly at the beaches, where residents for years have lighted them around the holiday. Citing state rules, town officials also said fireworks, sparklers, party poppers, firecrackers, spinners, and cherry bombs also are prohibited throughout town.
According to Vinchesi, residents last year were unsure about the rules governing cooking fires, which are allowed. The brochure spells out the regulations in detail.
“We want to make sure the town and folks are very clear about what’s permissible and [what’s] not,” Vinchesi said.
The first year of the ban drew sharp criticism from some waterfront residents, as Scituate’s bonfire rules are considerably stiffer than those in several nearby communities.
In Quincy, bonfires are neither sanctioned nor prohibited by the city. Although permits are required from the state, bonfire organizers typically don’t have them. Police and fire officials keep a watchful eye, said Christopher Walker, spokesman for Mayor Thomas Koch.
In the city’s Houghs Neck neighborhood, Ward 1 Councilor Margaret Laforest said though police continue to work on problems with underage drinking on the holiday, there has never been an issue with the fires.
“Houghs Neck has a tradition that dates back probably 100 years, celebrating what we refer to as our high holidays. The third of July, neighbors build a bonfire . . . and many generations of families gather to celebrate America’s independence,” she said. “It’s important to the neighborhood that this tradition continues.”
In Duxbury, residents are allowed to pay $25 for a permit to build a bonfire on ocean beaches from July 3 to 7.
According to Mary Leach, administrative assistant for the Duxbury Fire Department, there are restrictions on what may be burned, the height of the fire, and where along the beach they may be built, but no limit on how many.
“We usually issue about six to seven [permits] a year,” she said.
Plymouth permits upward of 20 bonfires a year, selling them to beach association members and homeowners for $100 a permit, and monitoring them to ensure safety, said Plymouth Deputy Fire Chief Michael Young.
On the other hand, Marshfield does not allow any fires on its beaches on the holiday. Throughout the year, only charcoal or propane cooking fires are permitted, and only then with a one-time use permit.
Though rules have been on the books since the 1970s, they weren’t enforced until a nearly catastrophic event in the 1980s, said Marshfield Fire Chief Kevin C. Robinson.
“We had a substantial high tide late at night . . . so all the bonfires were built close to the [sea] wall,” he recalled. “When the bonfires were raging throughout the sea wall, the wind shifted, so all the homes on the sea wall were being enveloped from flames from the beach, to the point that homeowners were on the roofs with garden hoses.”
Firefighters had a difficult time reaching the houses because there were so many people in the streets, Robinson said.
Since then, bans have changed the holiday in Marshfield from a Mardi Gras-type holiday to a family-oriented event, he said.
“There are still a large quantity of fireworks, but the bonfires attracting the crowds, alcohol-related incidents . . . those have declined,” Robinson said.
In Scituate, the regulations imposed last year resulted in rebellion, when several Humarock residents stacked wooden pallets on the beach and prepared to set them on fire. The rules prohibit the stacking of pallets as well as starting a fire, and authorities responded with heavy equipment to destroy the stacked materials.
While town officials say their police presence has been the same for years, to last year’s affected residents, the bonfire ban is too much.
“I think they have gone overboard,” said resident Emergy Langlois, adding the rules are like what one might find in a “police state.”
Langlois said he tried to organize a supervised bonfire with the town this year, to no avail. He said he hopes to host a pig roast instead.
“It’s very depressing. We’d like to go back to the old ways and have somebody supervise it,” he said.
Scituate Fire Chief Richard Judge said he doesn’t anticipate any problems with residents this year.
“I don’t anticipate them even attempting to [break the rules]. Last year, 98 percent of people were compliant,” Judge said.
Officials said people should not forget the impetus behind the restrictions — a March 2012 fire in Humarock that spread rapidly among four houses, destroying them within minutes.
The bonfires that dot the coastline every year were also getting increasingly out of hand, Judge said. The fires were attracting tens of thousands of people to the small town — particularly Humarock — worrying public safety officials concerned with getting emergency personnel in and out of the neighborhood quickly.
Scituate Police Chief Brian Stewart said Scituate isn’t the right place for such mass gatherings.
“We don’t want to spoil anybody’s fun,” he said. “But there is nowhere along our coastline . . . in Scituate that lends itself to all of a sudden having tons of people coming in there and blocking up the roads because of some type of illegal activity.”