GOSHEN — That time-worn Independence Day ritual — lighting off firecrackers and blasting Roman candles into the sky — becomes a clandestine activity this year in Elkhart County thanks to the dry weather.
On Monday, it showed. At least at TNT Fireworks off U.S. 33.
“Very, very slow,” said Jenny Howland, who was helping run the once-a-year operation, a fundraiser for New Life Church. In light of the fireworks ban, people “are scared. They're scared to buy.”
She understands the rationale for the ban, issued by Elkhart County commissioners last Friday due to fire concerns brought on by the ongoing drought. North on U.S. 33 at Rocket Man Fireworks on the southern edge of Elkhart, though, operators Sean Priser and Peter Salveson were less forgiving, questioning local officials' action.
“I'm just mainly afraid of the overreach from the local powers that be,” said Priser.
And some worry the ban could have a dramatic financial impact. Elkhart County is one of 23 Indiana counties that have implemented a fireworks ban due to the drought, according to Jen Tobey, head of the Elkhart County Emergency Management office.
Some vendors “could actually go bankrupt over this,” said Steve Graves, executive director of the Indiana Fireworks Dealers Association, an industry trade group. The days leading up to July 4, he said, are typically the bread-and-butter of fireworks operators.
Howland, for her part, said TNT Fireworks won't end up costing New Life Church. But it won't earn as much money as in past years, either. With the fireworks ban, Priser and Salveson – friends from Goshen who are operating Rocket Man for the first time as a sideline to their main occupations – are hoping just to break even.
The Elkhart County ban prohibits use of fireworks between June 29 and July 9, when pyrotechnics would otherwise be permitted. Interestingly, it doesn't bar sales.
NO HISTORY OF FIRES
In banning the personal use of fireworks, county officials, backed by leaders from the cities of Elkhart and Goshen, cited public safety concerns. An errant spark could cause a fire and they want to minimize the possibility of that happening.
“A lot of people are bummed out but everybody totally understands,” said Howland. “You can see how brown the grass is.”
Priser, however, said the ban, coming from the government, takes common sense out of the equation, eliminates the ability of the public to weigh the matter and act accordingly, without an official dictate. “We've never before had a history of fires in the state,” he said.
Graves, the industry rep, said there are measures fireworks users can take that can minimize the possibility of a fire, without necessarily having to resort to a ban. You can water your lawn before lighting off fireworks, for instance, and have lawn hoses and buckets of water at the ready.
He worries of a bias against fireworks among Indiana locales, even wonders if local officials have authority to implement bans. At the very least, Graves thinks, the places where fireworks are banned this Independence Day should establish make-up dates when they can be used.
In fact, officials here in Elkhart County plan to set such a period, once the dry conditions ease, according to Elkhart County Commissioner Terry Rodino and Arvis Dawson, assistant to Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore. At this stage, they're eyeing the lead up to Labor Day on Sept. 3, weather permitting. That's also when the city of Elkhart plans to hold its annual Fourth of July fireworks display, put off because of the dry weather.
Nothing's set in stone, though. “If the drought continues, we're going to err on the side of safety, always,” Dawson said.
WORRIED ABOUT POLICE
Despite it all, fireworks sales, though perhaps down, haven't stopped altogether.
Salveson at Rocket Man said he's noticing that people are buying “things that don't cause trouble,” like magic snakes and sparklers. They're steering clear of fireworks that blow high into the sky, mindful of the potential threat from falling fireworks embers and hoping to prevent tangles with law enforcement
“They're worried whether or not the cops are going to arrest them,” said Priser.
Reporter Angelle Barbazon contributed to this story