DES MOINES, IOWA – A year after firework sales returned to Iowa, many cities have implemented new restrictions as the fledgling industry tries to put itself on a more permanent footing.
The Iowa Legislature last year cleared the way for consumer fireworks in Iowa for the first time since 1938 in last-minute legislation that left cities and businesses scrambling. Some cities received numerous complaints, while fireworks companies filed lawsuits alleging too many barriers were erected.
Firework sales already have started for the summer season at permanent retail outlets, and sales can begin Wednesday at tents and other temporary structures. Iowa law also allows winter firework sales in December and early January.
Summer firework sales run through July 8, the last day discharging fireworks is legal. Absent more restrictive local rules, fireworks can be shot off between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily or until 11 p.m. on July 4 and the weekends of June 30 and July 7.
Here’s where fireworks stand in Iowa:
CITIES PASS BANS
Residents of Iowa’s largest cities won’t have the option of setting off fireworks on Independence Day this year.
Des Moines and Cedar Rapids both banned fireworks after last year’s season. Most Des Moines suburbs won’t allow fireworks, although they are allowed on July 4 in Ankeny. Several cities around Cedar Rapids allow at least limited fireworks use.
Several of Iowa’s other large cities, including Davenport, Waterloo, Iowa City, Ames and Dubuque, have also banned fireworks. Other cities, such as Sioux City and Council Bluffs, have restricted the use of fireworks to a much narrower timeframe.
Although cities can ban the use of fireworks, they can’t stop firework sales. They can, however, limit where items are sold to certain areas.
Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh said the city is experienced with an annual “tidal wave” of fireworks, which have long been legal in neighboring Nebraska. He said allowing a short window to use them has worked, and the city saw no injuries last year.
“We realize that it’s almost impossible to regulate the use during the Fourth of July,” Walsh said. “Council Bluffs residents were buying fireworks and shooting them off anyhow.
A fire that burned down much of the northwest Iowa city of Spencer more than eight decades ago prompted Iowa to be one of the first states to ban consumer fireworks. But with last year’s legislation, Iowa joined most of the rest of the country in loosening its rules to allow the sale of bottle rockets, firecrackers and roman candles.
Only Delaware and Massachusetts have a complete ban on consumer fireworks, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. Three other states allow only sparklers and similar novelty fireworks, which is what Iowa previously permitted.
Lawmakers cited the changing national landscape, as well as sales of fireworks in border states flowing into Iowa, when enacting the change in 2017.
The state fire marshal’s office said no agency tracks the number of injuries or fire calls linked to legalizing fireworks, leaving the exact impact of fireworks ambiguous. Some cities, like Des Moines, reported a surge in calls. Others, like Council Bluffs, had few adverse consequences.
Beyond safety concerns, the noise from fireworks can be a nuisance for the elderly, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, pet owners and those with an early bedtime.
Many cities, including Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, limited sales to industrial areas. An Alabama fireworks company sued Des Moines in December 2017, but a federal judge upheld the city’s regulations.
Despite that ruling, challenges over the use of zoning to regulate fireworks aren’t over.
Nebraska-based Bellino Fireworks Inc. pressured the city of Waterloo into allowing fireworks sales in commercial zones, a move the city originally sought to restrict. The company already has sued four other Iowa cities — Ankeny, Boone, Johnson and Pleasant Hill — to challenge their regulations on sale of fireworks. That case has a trial scheduled for November.
Vince Bellino, manager of Bellino Fireworks, said his company believes cities and counties should allow sales at temporary sites approved by the state fire marshal’s office.
“We’re not just going to go away,” Bellino said. “If need be, there will be legal action.”
Bellino Fireworks opened a warehouse in Clinton and is more than doubling its fireworks stands. Bellino said his company is monitoring the effect that discharge bans have on sales and may adjust next year’s locations accordingly.
A report by the Iowa Department of Revenue found sales last June, when businesses were still rushing to open retail outlets, were below expectation but that stronger sales were reported in July 2017. Precise sales figures aren’t available because regular retail stores that sell fireworks don’t detail those sales in state filings. The Department of Revenue has estimated sales would exceed $24 million in fiscal year 2018, which spans last July through this June but wouldn’t count sales in the few days around Independence Day.
State Fire Marshal Dan Wood said 552 licenses had been issued as of last Friday. He expects a final tally between 700 and 800, which would be up from last summer’s 664 fireworks stands. Inspections are conducted once the stands are up and running.
“It didn’t seem like we had too many large issues last year,” Wood said. “For the most part, it was just small stuff that they were able to fix on the fly.”