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'Leave the fireworks to the professionals,' police say

For the Fourth of July holiday weekend and beyond, police are urging residents to "leave the fireworks to the professionals," according to Paul G. Makuc, of the Connecticut State Police Fire and Explosion Investigative Unit.

Makuc said his phone has been ringing non-stop since May with constant complaints about illegal fireworks being set off in residential areas. He said that those thinking about hosting their own at-home fireworks shows this year should remember that explosive and aerial fireworks are not only illegal, they're dangerous.

Under state statute, any M-class explosives are illegal and carry a felony charge. Sparklers and firecrackers, though legal, can still be dangerous, even deadly, Makuc said.

Anything that is aerial or explodes is illegal, including some that are sold in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, where Makuc said Connecticut residents likely purchase the ones so many people are complaining about. The use or sale of those fireworks carries a misdemeanor charge.

The fireworks classified as illegal may only be used by licensed, professional pyrotechnicians putting on supervised displays at locations approved by state and local officials.

Those that violate the statute can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor. The penalties are worse depending on the value of the fireworks. Anyone who sells or has the intent to sell fireworks worth more than $10,000 can be found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. If death or injury results, the person can be charged with a Class C felony.

"Then you get M-class devices like M-80s, M-100s, those are actually considered to be explosives and carry felony charges," said Makuc, leading to potential jail time. "Those are the ones we see the most injuries with. We'll have people lose fingers and hands. A lot of those things are homemade. They're not regulated by anybody."

Setting off any fireworks, especially explosives, can lead to severe burns, and even the loss of limbs or fingers, said Makuc. Falling debris from fireworks and debris, like used sparklers, placed into trash cans can spark disastrous home fires.

Sparklers, often seen in the hands of young children at July 4 celebrations, are illegal for anyone under the age of 16. Parents can face misdemeanor charges for allowing children under the age 16 to handle them, said Makuc.

Sparklers, he said, burn at a temperature of 1,200 to 2,000 degrees, said Makuc, as hot as a blow torch.

"You wouldn't hand your kid a blowtorch on July 4 to hold, yet you hand them sparklers," he said. "Just because they're legal doesn't mean they're safe."

Makuc said that police have already responded to several fireworks-related fires this year, including an incident where a 7-year-old girl was struck in the face by fireworks her father was launching in Litchfield.

Police are also working on cracking down on illegal use and sales.

"I know that the local police departments have been making more arrests than ever before. Many departments are dedicating patrols to only fireworks," said Makuc

Though state police say they haven't made any arrests for sales of illegal fireworks and haven't seized any yet, they anticipate that they will soon.

The New London Police Department has already made five arrests for the possession and discharge of illegal fireworks this year.

Police are responding to several calls each night but have been unable to find any point of sale within the City of New London, said Capt. Brian Wright. The department is remaining in contact with the fire marshal who is checking stores and is continuing to step up efforts until sales are located.

Wright also emphasized that the explosives carry felony charges and are dangerous.

"It's truly more than a nuisance, they're dangerous," he said.

New London Mayor Michael Passero said he has been working with fire marshals to look at gas stations and bodegas where illegal fireworks have been sold in the past and is working with police who have been inundated with a nearly 600 percent increase in complaints from this time last year.

"It is stressing our resources, but because of the threat to public safety it's a priority," said Passero.

Makuc urged that people who do choose to set off fireworks wear eye protection and extinguish and dispose of all of their fireworks properly, soaking fireworks and debris in water overnight before putting them in the trash. He said that dry grass conditions, like our area has now, and mixing fireworks with alcohol, the case at many backyard holiday parties, make fireworks even more dangerous.

"We know that people are going to be missing their fireworks displays so we are sympathetic to that," said Makuc. "However, to do your own backyard fireworks display is not safe."

Day Staff Writer Julia Bergman contributed to this report.

t.hartz@theday.com

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