Alaskans are preparing to celebrate Independence Day with road trips and cookouts — but fire and police officials warn that using personal fireworks is legal in only some areas of the state.
Samantha Parsons, a manager with Gorilla Fireworks at Mile 53 of the Parks Highway, said customer traffic through her stand in Houston — the only place in Southcentral Alaska, she said, where it's legal to sell fireworks — is increasing.
"It's starting to pick up with the weekend coming," Parsons said by phone. "We're expecting to see more people as people make their plans."
Customers often ask staff at the stands whether fireworks are legal in their towns, Parsons said. If employees don't know, they direct the buyers to their local city hall.
"We want to make sure people are using them safely and responsibly with proper supervision," Parsons said. "We let them know that they're not supposed to use them in national or state parks."
As items like a 24-pack of "Excalibur" artillery shells become hot sellers at Gorilla fireworks, Parsons said, safety is a priority for the company.
"We really want everybody to have fun and have fun safely," Parsons said.
Before you get into a brush with the law, take a quick look at where regulations stand on the use of fireworks in much of Southcentral Alaska and other parts of the state:
Anchorage: Illegal in the municipality
Anchorage Fire Department spokesman John See emphasized a standing ban on the use of fireworks in the municipality, including Eagle River and Girdwood, and urged people to "say no" to doing so.
See also mentioned last month's devastating fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, as well as a fire in California that has killed at least two people and destroyed at least 100 structures, as examples of the dangers wildfires can pose to communities.
"Knowing how destructive these fires can be, we also want to remind you that fireworks are illegal within the Municipality of Anchorage and that selling, possessing, or using fireworks within (the municipality) is prohibited," See wrote in a statement. "Penalties for the illegal use of fireworks include a $300 fine and confiscation of the fireworks."
See said anyone who discharges fireworks may have to pay for firefighters' costs to extinguish any wildfire they ignite. He also said fireworks' inaccuracy can put adjacent structures at risk.
"You can't really control where they land; about the best you can do is point them in a direction," See said. "They could land on your neighbor's roof — if your neighbor has a wood-shingle roof, that's a real problem — or if they land next to a wood pile, that could be a concern right there."
Anchorage Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Castro said Thursday that while no additional officers will be deployed over the Fourth of July weekend specifically to crack down on fireworks users, the city will see an increased police presence on roads for traffic enforcement.
James Gray, the city's acting fire marshal, said it was unlikely that Anchorage's two public fireworks displays — late Sunday at about midnight in Eagle River Lions Park and late Monday at about midnight after a 9 p.m. baseball game at Mulcahy Stadium in Anchorage — would be canceled, as they were last year during a dry and dangerous fire season.
Gray said that this year, both displays got the go-ahead after he consulted with Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's office. Rain expected across much of Southcentral Alaska on Friday and over the weekend was a significant factor in making that call.
"We decided to go ahead with them," Gray said. "Some of that's based on the moisture content and that's different this year, so we decided to approve the commercial fireworks demonstrations."
Mat-Su Borough: Only legal in Houston, and only under certain circumstances
According to Mat-Su Borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan, fireworks are banned throughout the borough for most of the year, with limited exceptions on New Year's Eve.
"Fireworks are also prohibited in the cities of Palmer and Wasilla," Sullivan wrote in a statement.
In the city of Houston, Sullivan said, fireworks are legal on private land, but only with the property owner's permission and when no burn bans have been issued by the state Division of Forestry. Beth Ipsen, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Fire Service, said Thursday that no such bans are in effect, although temporary burn restrictions have been issued periodically this year.
Kenai Peninsula: Illegal within city limits; by permit only in the borough
Kenai Police Department Sgt. Paul Cushman said fireworks are banned in the city year-round, with the exception of New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
"The use of fireworks in the city of Kenai is prohibited; the sale of fireworks in Kenai is prohibited, both by city law," Cushman said.
Although city law allows a fine of up to $500 for illegal fireworks use, Cushman said, officers responding to illegal fireworks usually just request that people stop using them.
"Usually people comply," Cushman said. "If we advise them of the ordinance and ask them to cease their activity, they usually do."
Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik said fireworks are illegal in his jurisdiction.
"They are not allowed in the city," Mlynarik said. "Sometimes there's a special-use (permit) for special events like New Year's, that sort of thing, but normally they're prohibited."
Although Soldotna code allows for a $100 fine for the discharge of fireworks in local parks, Mlynarik said fireworks complaints have generally been rare.
"We really don't have any problem with them," Mlynarik said. "We've got a pretty small footprint and we haven't really had any issues."
Homer Police Department's Lt. Will Hutt said fireworks are illegal under a local ordinance. Police have other priorities during the holiday weekend but will address fireworks complaints.
"Typically, we'll respond when they're waking up campers," Hutt said.
According to Seward Volunteer Fire Chief Eddie Athey, the use of fireworks is illegal in the city without permits. Only one use has been authorized — the official fireworks show at midnight on July Fourth, at the harbor near the Seward Mariners Memorial.
"Beyond that there are no authorized or permitted fireworks," Athey said. "Every year people bring fireworks down and attempt to shoot 'em off, so we try to enforce the fireworks code."
Kenai Peninsula Borough spokeswoman Brenda Ahlberg said fireworks are legal in the borough only with a permit from the mayor's office.
Fairbanks: Illegal within city limits; currently legal in the borough
Kyle Green, a deputy fire marshal with the city of Fairbanks, said fireworks are banned there.
"Fireworks are illegal to sell, store, transfer or discharge within city limits," Green said. "If we get complaints about it, more than likely there'll be somebody investigating it."
Fairbanks North Star Borough spokeswoman Krista Major said the borough has not issued any fireworks restrictions of its own for the Fourth of July weekend, but it typically defers to rules set by the state fire marshal's office.
Deputy state fire marshal Lloyd Nakano said Friday that under state fire code, the fire marshal's office can ban the sale and use of fireworks in areas under extreme wildfire danger. No such declaration has been made for the Fairbanks North Star Borough over the holiday weekend.
Juneau: Legal, but use them responsibly
Juneau police spokesman Lt. David Campbell said the possession and use of fireworks are legal in Alaska's capital, but he added that police respond to fireworks-related calls when they present nuisances or are used in a negligent or dangerous manner.
"We do receive fireworks calls — we do fireworks enforcement, we do enforce the noise ordinances," Campbell said. "For the past few years, we've been looking at the crimes that can be associated with fireworks use."
Juneau officers' leave has been canceled for the holiday weekend, Campbell said, with every available officer set to be fielded during the city's festivities in Juneau and Douglas.
Valdez: Legal within city limits for 26 hours starting the night of July 3
City of Valdez spokeswoman Allie Ferko said Friday that Valdez city code makes the use of fireworks legal from 10 p.m. July 3 until the end of July 4.
"The only exception is the Valdez Small Boat Harbor, or as the police chief deems," Ferko said.
State and federal lands: Illegal on non-federal forested lands as well as all federal lands in Alaska
Alaska Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry said fireworks are banned across most state lands and "all federal lands in Alaska." Most of this year's Alaska wildfires have been human-caused from sources like campfires, he said, with some parts of the state still "extremely dry" despite the recent rain elsewhere.
"The use of fireworks is also a major concern over the Fourth of July weekend," Mowry wrote in a statement. "Remember, it is illegal to use fireworks on forested (non-federal) lands, public or private."
Chugach National Forest issued a similar warning to visitors for the holiday weekend, saying rangers will be issuing citations to anyone found "possessing, discharging or using fireworks" within the forest.
"Forest visitors are reminded that all types of fireworks, including sparklers and smoke bombs, are prohibited within the Chugach National Forest," forest officials wrote. "Forest regulations prohibit possessing, discharging, or using any kind of fireworks on National Forest lands at any time."