MISSOULA — Despite the pleas of elected officials and extreme fire conditions, fireworks across the City of Missoula lit up the night sky over Independence Day, all in violation of local restrictions.
While fireworks are illegal in city limits, no citations were issued this year and the number of calls to the hotline established to report such complaints decreased, according to figures provided by the city.
Still, a number of residents expressed concern over some of the larger fireworks incidents, saying sparks “rained down” on their rooftop. But even then, warnings remain “the approach the police department prefers to take” when responding to complaints, according to a city spokesperson.
The police department confirmed that a warning is, in fact, the preferred method in handling such complaints.
“Fireworks is a sensitive topic. We obviously have an increase in fire danger this year, and we have city ordinances outlining that fireworks are prohibited in city limits,” said police spokesperson Lydia Arnold.
“If we have an officer respond and make contact with people doing fireworks, we want the officer to take the approach of education, talking to the people, and looking at the totality of what they’re doing.”
According to figures provided by the city, 211 calls were received this year over the fireworks hotline – down from the 269 calls received the year before. Dispatchers also received 119 calls for service this year, which was also down from 199 calls received the year before.
No citations were issued this year over fireworks, the city said after a check with Municipal Court.
“I can’t give a statement on how many calls officers actually went to and spoke to individuals related to fireworks, but officers did give warnings,” said Arnold. “I can’t say exactly there’s a formula for how many times an officer has to respond to a certain place before a citation is issued for fireworks.”
One Missoula resident told the Missoula Current that a neighbor several doors down launched a prolonged volley of fireworks in the middle of the street after the sanctioned show at Southgate Mall had ended.
Another resident caught the event on a Ring doorbell. Another neighbor said sparks were landing on his rooftop. The illegal display lasted for about 30 minutes.
“They were shooting probably 50 feet into the air and raining sparks onto neighboring properties,” one resident said of the event. “Another neighbor called the police but no one responded. Many of the residents were concerned that a fire would be started due to the hot and dry conditions we’ve been experiencing.”
The resident said a fire official showed up and issued a warning. Officials with the Missoula Fire Department didn’t return calls for this story.
A warning issued in one year isn’t likely to carry over to another, Arnold said. Those warned by the city this year would likely receive another warning the next time around. But officers do have the discretion to issue a ticket.
“From the police department’s perspective, it’s the Fourth of July holiday and yes, we do have those city ordinances,” Arnold said. “But our approach is always to take one of education, asking questions, reminding them of what the city ordinances are, and looking at the totality of what the danger could be.”
Incidents across Montana where fireworks have resulted in a destructive fire aren’t hard to find. In 2007, fireworks started a range fire in Rosebud County and in Butte, fireworks damaged a home this year.
In Helena this month, crews responded to as many as 24 small fires, several of them sparked by fireworks. This week, the Missoula PaddleHeads minor league baseball team canceled its annual fireworks show scheduled for later this month after consulting with the fire department.
Arnold said Missoula police officers have other calls to deal with, and fireworks complaints don’t always rise to the top. When an officer has time, he or she may do an extra patrol once another call brings them to the area of the complaint.
“If there’s an actual incident in progress where someone is in danger, some of those calls do end up being held and an officer may not get to that area,” said Arnold. “It depends on what else is going on in the city to how quickly an officer would be able to respond to a complaint over fireworks.”