A longtime ban on setting off fireworks within Billings city limits hasn’t put much of a dent in Austin Tait’s business.
Tait, manager of the Black Raptor Fireworks stand at 4249 King Ave. W., said sales are building in the days leading up to the nation’s 238th birthday Friday. The average sale for a family is $150 to $200, he said, and sales typically are peppered with a safety talk by Tait.
“A lot of people ask, and it’s something I feel like I probably should do,” said Tait, a bartender when he’s not selling fireworks. Tait said he dispenses general words of advice for fireworks fans to remain safe: Set the fireworks off in an open area, light only one at a time, have a water source or fire extinguisher nearby and read the instructions on the package.
Tuesday night’s fire at the Sports Authority, 100 N. 24th Street W., reportedly started by someone throwing lighted fireworks into a juniper bush, “is an example of stupidity,”
Tait said. “Any firework can be dangerous.”
That fire caused an estimated $500,000 damage to the store, including smoke damage to the interior.
Lt. Kevin Iffland of the Billings Police Department said that on Friday 11 officers will be assigned to enforcing the citywide ban on fireworks use. Day shift officers will stay longer and night shift officers will report early to beef up patrols, he said.
“There are always a lot of (fireworks use) complaints” on Independence Day, Iffland said. Between June 27 and Wednesday, police had investigated 37 reports of people setting fireworks off within city limits, Iffland said.
The fine for the municipal ordinance infraction is typically $110, but it can go as high as $300, he said.
It’s also illegal to possess fireworks in city limits, and Iffland offered this example on how officers enforce that prohibition: Police called to an address aren’t required to observe the fireworks being set off in order to issue a citation. If the officer observes people sitting in a driveway getting ready to ignite, for example, a mortar tube, that’s an infraction as well, Iffland said.
“We do our best come every Fourth of July, but there are more calls than we can respond to,” he said. “We take as many calls as we can.”
Billings Fire Marshal Mike Spini urged residents to enjoy one of two professionally-done public fireworks displays Friday night, at Castle Rock Park in the Heights or in Laurel.
On Wednesday morning, Tait’s customer, Jasmine Moen of Billings, was handing over $20 for some fireworks she plans to set off at her home outside city limits. Tait has a deal that gives customers $5 worth of fireworks for every $10 spent.
“They’re really pretty, and they make a lot of noise,” Moen said of her purchase. “We love celebrating our freedom with loud noises and bright colors.”
Tait said he secured a permit from the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office to operate the business between the allowed dates, June 25 through July 5. State law also allows for fireworks sale from Dec. 29-31.
He also made sure the use was allowed at the King Avenue West spot by checking with the Planning and Community Services Department.
“This is a great location, because there’s a lot of people headed out of town,” he said. “When I was a kid, our parents would spend $10 or $20 on fireworks and call it good. Now a kid will come in and spend $15 or $20. Times change.”
Under state law, there’s no age minimum to purchase fireworks, he said.
Scott Lillie, a volunteer firefighter with the Molt Volunteer Fire Department and a homeowner in Echo Canyon, said he wishes there weren’t quite so many people escaping Billings to set off their fireworks in his fire protection district.
“We say, shoot them off in the city where you have fire hydrants,” he said.
The Molt fire district stretches from just beyond Billings’ West End to 10 miles west of Molt.
Not all of the 400 or so homeowners within the district are familiar with “the whole urban interface,” he said, and visitors setting off fireworks sometimes don’t consider the possible consequences.
“This year we are blessed with a lot of greenery, but a spark can hit a field” then quickly spread into timberland, “and pretty soon you are in a place you can’t defend,” he said. “I lost my home in 2002 to a fire and so I know what fire does. It’s why I joined the volunteer fire department.”
“This is a pristine environment, and fireworks are a major issue for us. God bless America, but fireworks of this kind in this country is kind of ludicrous.”