BREWER, Maine — Bangor resident Preston Jarvis looked like a kid in a candy store on Wednesday as he shopped for pyrotechnics at Maine Fireworks on Wilson Street.
“I’m so overwhelmed — I love it,” he said, a huge smile on his face as he and his friend, Josh Herald of Eddington, selected nightcrawlers, roman candles and other fireworks the day before the Fourth of July. “It’s awesome.”
The law legalizing fireworks in Maine went into effect on Jan. 1, 2012, and since then sales have exceeded expectations, according to merchants and state officials. Last year 16 stores were successfully licensed, the State Fire Marshal’s Office said in its March 2013 report to the Maine Legislature on the first year of the sale and use of consumer fireworks in the state.
Two more retail stores have since opened, bringing the statewide total to 18.
The fireworks business is doing surprisingly well, according to sales data collected by the Maine Revenue Service. The state predicted $125,000 in sales tax revenues from the sale of fireworks in the first year, David Heidrich, assistant director of communications for the revenue service, said Wednesday.
“It turned out, as of May 31, we were looking at sales tax revenues of just over $380,000, which equates to about $7.6 million in sales,” he said.
Overall, the industry in Maine has created jobs and added “significant tax revenues,” Heidrich said.
But the financial boom has come at a price.
Fireworks caused 49 fires in 2012, including one that destroyed a house, State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said Tuesday. Maine fire departments reported 11 fires and 38 fires were reported by the Maine Forest Service, he said.
“Those ranged anywhere from a simple spot fire up to the one they had in Portland that amounted to about $60,000 in damages for the house on Congress Street,” Thomas said.
The fire at 229 Congress St. broke out on July 2, 2012 and was caused by a sparkler.
Fireworks also caused 19 reportable injuries last year, according to Thomas.
“I consider that to be a lowball number,” Thomas said Wednesday, referring to the injuries. “That is only the hospitals that voluntarily report, not places like quick care.”
Three children, he said, were treated at a Portland medical facility for minor injuries on July 4, 2012, who did not make the list.
The injuries reported by the Maine Medical Association and Maine Hospital Association included “everything from minor burns to the hands and fingers all the way up to a serious head injury and one injury to a person’s leg,” Thomas said. “Both required significant hospital treatments.”
In its report, the fire marshal’s office notes that one year’s worth of data is not enough to reach any real conclusions about the safety of consumer fireworks.
Data from years past about injuries and fires directly related to fireworks is not available, Thomas said.
“We’re starting from scratch here,” Thomas said.
Some of the fires and injuries may be attributable to novices using fireworks.
Greg Lovely, who with his wife, Deborah, owns Maine Fireworks in Newport, Plymouth and Brewer, said while some customers know exactly what they want and how to use them, those new to purchasing fireworks often ask the same question when they enter the store.
“Bottle rockets and cherry bombs are illegal and they are the first thing people ask for,” Lovely said.
Those looking for bottle rockets are offered roman candles instead and those looking for cherry bombs can get similar looking M-80s, Lovely said.
Each customer is given a copy of the state laws regarding fireworks that includes a list of communities where they are banned or restricted.
“We also suggest they call their local fire department, if they have questions,” he said.
Buying fireworks in Maine is now easy. Finding a place to light them isn’t so simple.
The decision of whether to restrict fireworks was left to local governments, with Bangor, Portland, Augusta and other municipalities banning them within city limits. By the end of the law’s first full year, 56 Maine cities and towns had adopted their own ordinances, some allowing the sale and use of fireworks, others banning them and still others — such as Brewer — allowing their use but with certain restrictions.
Brewer outlawed the lighting of fireworks except in less populated outlying areas.
Once a location to use fireworks legally is found, officials stress the need for safety measures.
Thomas said many of the state’s rules were put in place to protect children.
Brewer resident Jen Brooks was at Maine Fireworks on Wilson Street Wednesday to grab “the small stuff” to add to the show her cousin, Jake Harris, is putting on at his house in Dedham.
“Last year, we did like $700 in fireworks,” she said. “This year, we’re going to Dedham because we can’t do it at my house in Brewer anymore.”
Safety is stressed at the Brooks-Harris gathering, with three adults designated as the lighters of the pyrotechnics.
“We’re really careful and safe,” Brooks said. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
Nothing would ruin the fun faster than an injury, she said.
The Fourth of July is typically when most fireworks-related injuries are reported, said Orrington firefighter Shellie Tourtillotte, who serves as the department’s public educator.
“Some people will think kids can light them off with supervision, but by law it’s restricted to those 21 years and older,” she said.
Those who set off the fireworks should wear long sleeves and eye protection, Tourtillotte suggested, and should follow the directions on the packages.
“Don’t alter the fireworks at all,” she said. “Some people will put three or four together. And make sure you’re in an area that is flat and away from any debris and anything that is combustible.”
Spectators should also be kept at a safe distance in case of any misfires, Tourtillotte said.
Sparklers, which have always been legal, are also a concern for the fire educators.
“The tip of a sparkler is 1,200 degrees and glass melts at 900 degrees,” she said. “Parents should take precautions with children. They could very easily injure themselves.”
Exercising common courtesy when using fireworks is a key to keeping neighbors happy and preventing noise complaints, said Deborah Lovely.
“Be respectful of your neighbors,” she said.