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City Leaders Decry ‘War Zone of Fireworks’ During Fourth of July

WHEELING — As July 4 fell on Saturday this year, the celebratory holiday weekend came and went with a bang … literally. Although no reports of fireworks-related injuries were received in Wheeling over the weekend, the city police department was inundated with complaints about illegal fireworks.

After the smoke cleared from the celebrations, Wheeling officials lit the fuse on an effort they hope will put an end to the rampant use of illegal fireworks in the city limits, or at least give revelers more of an incentive to refrain from blatantly violating the law.

The Wheeling police and fire departments had issued a joint statement to the public ahead of the Independence Day weekend, reminding citizens that fireworks are prohibited in the city of Wheeling.

According to the city’s fire prevention code, the ordinance prohibits any firework that propels into the air, that is combustible or explosive, that is flammable or audible.

This includes bottle rockets, sky rockets, Roman candles and other typical kinds of backyard fireworks, although the ordinance does allow certain fireworks to be used within city limits, including sparklers, fountains, party poppers, snaps, smoke devices and other non-propellant noisemakers.

Officials noted that the ordinance exists in order to keep people and properties safe from any potential fire hazard, and failure to obey the ordinance can result in law enforcement citations.

Despite the warning, the Wheeling Police Department fielded a total of 64 complaint calls reporting illegal fireworks last week through the holiday weekend.

This week, some city leaders concurred with the complainants that it was time to say “enough is enough.”

“We just went through a war zone of fireworks over the past few days,” Councilman Dave Palmer told fellow city leaders this week. “Fireworks are somewhat illegal — or they are claimed to be illegal in our city charter, but we give our police no enforcement powers.”

Palmer asked that City Manager Robert Herron, Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger, Fire Chief Larry Helms and the city’s legal department get together and come up with an ordinance that will allow effective enforcement against the use of illegal fireworks.

Schwertfeger on Wednesday said the city’s code prohibiting certain fireworks in the city limits was written in 1981.

“Things have changed since then,” the police chief said.

“It’s no longer against the law in the state of West Virginia. So in the county — outside the city limits — it’s legal.

“But I support having a code prohibiting their use in the city. It’s important to have it in place in an urban environment, but being a municipal violation, we can’t jail anyone. It has no teeth.”

Schwertfeger said police officers can issue a citation if people are caught setting off illegal fireworks, but it’s no different that getting a speeding ticket, he indicated.

“We can’t take anyone into custody. We can’t even seize the fireworks,” Schwertfeger said, noting that since the rule falls under the city’s fire prevention code, only the chief inspector of the bureau of fire prevention can confiscate fireworks, according to the current language in the ordinance.

“It’s a problem every year around the July 4 holiday. It’s very frustrating.”

The chief indicated he would support a revised, rewritten code regarding fireworks that spelled out stiff fines and provided more enforcement power to police.

He indicated the consequences should make potential violators think twice about the way they celebrate.

Officials noted that loud and propelled fireworks are not only dangerous inside the city limits, they are annoying and inconsiderate to many of their neighbors.

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