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Relaxed firework regulations don't faze Winona officials
By Erin Galbally
Minnesota Public Radio
July 1, 2002

Thanks to the recent repeal of a 1941 state law, Minnesotan's can now purchase and light sparkles, snakes, and cones. In other words non-aerial, non-explosive fireworks are now legal. And as firework season comes to a peak later this week, their brightly colored packaging can be found everywhere from gas stations to local grocers. Many communities are trying to understand the new regulations. But for local officials in Winona, the firework dilemma is nothing new.

William Sommers has sold fireworks in Wisconsin for four decades. With the change in Minnesota law he is now contracting with Minnesota retailers to sell fireworks.
(MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)

Winona and Wisconsin are joined by an arched steel and concrete bridge across the Mississippi. Every year about this time one of the first sights greeting cars speeding east into Wisconsin is a large blue and white tent filled with fireworks. Head further down the highway and firework stalls stand in for mile markers.

William Sommers owns Buffalo Fireworks, a more permanent installation that's open from spring to fall. He walks around his well stocked shop.

"This here is your sparkler," says Sommers. "Now the only sparkler we carry 99-percent of the time has a wood handle. That is a safe sparkler."

Sommers has been in the fireworks business for more than 40 years. In the back of the shop he puffs away on a cigar. He says this year sales have jumped about 8-percent. He credits the increase to a change in Minnesota law that means sparklers and other low-grade fireworks can be purchased and used by adults over the age of 18.

It's never been illegal for the Wisconsinites to sell fireworks to Minnesotans. It's just been illegal for the Minnesotans to use them. Sommers and many others have never had any qualms about exploiting this murky legality. Now Sommers says with the change in Minnesota law his customers include more Minnesotans than ever before.

"Well, the impact is we're tapping a new market - people who would not break the law before," explains Sommers.

Fire works are now widely available in Minnesota. Some municipalities including St Paul are considering licensing fireworks retailers. In the meantime law enforcement officials say a simple rule of thumb is to remember: any firework that goes "kaboom" is likely to be illegal in Minnesota
(MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)

"Now they can purchase them of course and when you're in the firework business you have to buy from someone so you have regular customers and your normal new customers and then the influx of the new market, its got to effect everybody."

Sommers is now contracting with Minnesota retailers. Winona's newest supermarket for example boasts firework displays in front of the checkout, the dairy section and in an isle dedicated to seasonal items.

Thanks to the change, communities around the state are looking for ways to monitor the sale of fireworks. St. Paul is investigating licensing fireworks retailers. However Winona officials like Deputy Fire Chief Jim Malthaup say they have no plans do the same.

"We're not looking at licensing seller in Winona at all and if we did again I don't think we'd see a change," says Malthaup. "It would just be a short ride across the river."

Malthaup says every year his department responds to firework complaints and accidents. He expects this year will be the same. His colleague Frank Pomeroy worries there may be more confusion. Pomeroy's the Winona City Police Chief. He says while restrictions on fireworks have been eased there are still severe limitations on what is legal.

"I think we're going to have some conflict with those people that have fireworks and us when we try to explain the law, as it really exists and what their interpretation of the law really is," explains Pomeroy.

Pomeroy says anything that goes "kaboom" is still illegal. That means cherry bombs and roman candles can carry stiff penalties since they're considered "aerials", or fireworks that discharge.

A roadside tradition: the Wisconsin fireworks stand. Owners say business is better since Minnesota relaxed its fireworks law. There is still confusion on both sides of the border as to what is legal where
(MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)

Back across the river in Wisconsin, Casey who chose not give his last name is setting up for business. Fireworks of all shapes and sizes line the walls of a trailer, which sits in the parking lot of an exotic dance club.

"Minnesota sells novelties. I sell novelties and we sell other fireworks," says Casey.

Asked to explain he says his stock includes aerial fireworks. He says they're legal in Wisconsin with a permit. Casey says he not sure if they're legal in Minnesota.

As a result Winona police and fire officials say they'll prepare for this Fourth of July like any other. They say despite changes in state regulations there will still be plenty of illegal fireworks to keep them occupied.