PORTLAND, Maine — On Monday, 150 years after a child’s stray Independence Day firecracker reportedly sparked a fire that razed much of Portland, people across the city were still setting off their own fireworks — despite an ordinance banning them.
Illegal fireworks are nothing new, but last week, the Portland Fire Department issued a warning about fire risk from hot, dry conditions, and city government sent out a reminder of Portland’s longstanding ban on fireworks. Meanwhile, buildings throughout downtown were marked with hundreds of paper flames to trace the path of the Great Fire of 1886, which cut east from the Old Port and destroyed more than 1,500 buildings, leaving four or five people dead and some 10,000 homeless before the blaze eventually burned out on Munjoy Hill.
From the East End to Deering Oaks and Payson parks, those warnings, and the significance of the date, apparently did little to dissuade Independence Day revelers from celebrating with their own patriotic — and illegal — pyrotechnics.
In the West End, Lydia Wagner said that she and her husband were awakened by the pops and bangs of fireworks in Harbor View Memorial Park — at 11 p.m., midnight, 1 a.m. and about 3 a.m.
She said she has been been irked by the noise of unsanctioned summer fireworks for years, but she’s become increasingly concerned about the danger of flying sparks.
“Even before I knew that this was the 150th anniversary of the fire, I could see in the park that the grass was really dry and brown, so it was at top of mind that it was a safety issue,” said Wagner.
The Portland Police Department received 34 complaints about illegal fireworks on July 4, plus an additional 47 complaints on July 3 and in the early hours of July 5, according to city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin. Police did not ticket anyone for fireworks.
Three of those complaints came from Wagner, who said the police never showed — which may have been because police were busy dealing with 681 calls for service during that period.
“We have to triage calls, and at the end of the day, something like a domestic [abuse call] is going to trump a fireworks call,” said Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.
For much of the 20th century, fireworks were off limits to consumers in all of Maine — as they are in seven other states including Massachusetts and Vermont. But in 2011, when the Legislature decided to rejoin the 40 states that allow some or all types of fireworks, Portland was among 41 Maine towns that enacted municipal bans.
Save for the casings of spent fireworks littering some streets in the early morning, the city was unscathed by this year’s unofficial celebrations.
But in Cumberland, a firework hit a tree, causing a blaze that melted the plastic siding of a house before it was extinguished by volunteers and firefighters.
Jay Norris, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said that he didn’t mind a few fireworks if it meant police were spending time effectively corralling the tens of thousands of people who filled his neighborhood — something he said they did well this year.
“It’s just a fact of life in America, firecrackers are going to go off on the Fourth of July,” he said.