DES MOINES — This Fourth of July in Iowa promises to feature significantly more patriotic booms, pops and cracks as a new state law that legalizes home displays of consumer-grade fireworks takes effect.
Across the state, Iowans are preparing for a more festive Fourth — and not just folks who will be shooting off bottle rockets and lighting Roman candles and firecrackers in their backyards.
Iowa’s new version of Independence Day also has created new opportunities and responsibilities for businesses, public safety and emergency response personnel and local government officials.
Gov. Terry Branstad last week signed into law the legalization of consumer-grade fireworks. Before the new law, Iowa was one of only seven states with similarly or more restrictive fireworks laws, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.
Flashing Thunder Fireworks has been operating in northern Iowa for more than three decades.
But this will be a milestone year for the Mitchell, Iowa-based company when, for the first time, it will be able to sell its consumer-grade fireworks directly to Iowans.
Flashing Thunder performs professional fireworks shows for cities and organizations, roughly 200 shows per year across the Midwest, according to Katie Mostek, who owns the company with her husband, Jeremy.
Flashing Thunder also sells consumer-grade fireworks to individuals and companies in other states and even has its own line of consumer fireworks.
Now the company can sell those consumer fireworks in its own backyard.
“It is a big deal,” Katie Mostek said. “Every state around us, practically, has consumer fireworks sales open, so everybody (in Iowa) was buying them anyway. They were just bringing it back from other states, and those businesses and those states got the tax money. ...
“Now the money can stay inside the state. That’s a big deal.”
Mostek said that in addition to the company’s normal brick-and-mortar stores — the home base in Mitchell includes a showroom — Flashing Thunder plans to add more locations, including temporary units under tents.
Flashing Thunder and other fireworks retailers find themselves scrambling a bit; the new law was signed by the governor on May 9, and companies can begin selling fireworks on June 1, just 23 days later.
“It’s going to be a little hectic,” Mostek said, noting the state fire marshal as of Friday morning had not yet completed the application for businesses to receive a sales permit. “It’s a quick turnaround.”
Bellino Fireworks, based out of Omaha, Nebraska, also has been operating for more than three decades and plans to expand into Iowa this year.
Owner Vincent Bellino said his company has 130 stands in Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri. He hopes to add 50 to 60 locations in Iowa this year, he said, some in stores and others in temporary structures.
Bellino said he traveled to the Iowa Capitol many times over the past three years to encourage state lawmakers to legalize consumer-grade fireworks. He said he expects a lot of interest from Iowans, who for the first time will be able to purchase these fireworks legally in their home state. He thinks it will be similar to when in 2011 the city of Omaha ended its ban on the sale of fireworks.
“There’s obviously going to be some excitement around it, some good demand in the Iowa markets,” Bellino said. “It’s obviously an exciting time for everyone, whether it’s the consumer or businesses.”
It’s less of an exciting time for emergency response personnel, who are bracing for increased activity this Fourth of July season.
More than a dozen organizations that represent emergency response and health care workers opposed the new law, including the Iowa Medical Society, Blank Children’s Hospital, the Iowa Nurses Association, the Iowa Emergency Management Association and the Iowa Firefighters Association.
Firefighters across the state, for example, already feel short-staffed and stressed by call volume, which they figure will only increase this Fourth of July as more people shoot off fireworks at home.
“Now that they’re legal but law enforcement is the same,” Halleran said, “we can only assume that injuries and potential fires are going to go up.”
Halleran said emergency response groups think the new law was “freight-trained” through the legislative process despite their near unanimous objection. He also expressed frustration with the short time period from the law’s approval to the first holiday season.
“The law was just signed the other day, and the Fourth of July is right around the corner,” Halleran said, noting local fireworks ordinances likely will take another couple of weeks to implement. “... There’s not a lot of time on this to get on top of it.”
The new law provides some flexibility for cities, which are now determining how best to implement fireworks regulations in their areas.
The law permits home, consumer-grade fireworks displays from June 1 through July 8 and Dec. 10 through Jan. 3, but it also allows cities to shorten that time period or continue to ban home fireworks displays altogether.
Some cities appear content to let the new law take effect and see how it goes, while others are considering restricting the dates residents can display fireworks, said Robert Palmer, a lobbyist for the Iowa League of Cities.
“Opinions on what to do and how to proceed are as varied as the number of cities we have in Iowa,” Palmer said.
In northwest Iowa, the council in the small town of Moville voted unanimously to adopt the state law as written.
“We will go with the state rules,” Moville Mayor Jim Fisher told the Sioux City Journal. “We will see how people react. If they do it properly, no problem. If it is misused, we will go ahead and make other arrangements (in 2018).”
To the opposite extreme, officials in Johnson County are considering a challenge to the provision in the law that says cities can adjust when fireworks are displayed, but they cannot prevent consumer-grade fireworks from being sold.
A local ban on fireworks sales would run afoul of the new law. But Johnson County officials think that runs afoul of local control, and they are considering at least a temporary moratorium on sales until they can better understand the new law.
“I don’t know where we will end up after this moratorium, but we need time to figure it out. I think everybody in Johnson County is concerned of temporary sales,” Johnson County Board of Supervisors chairwoman Janelle Rettig told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “We don’t think that’s safe in any way, shape or form.”