As Marylanders prepare to light up the sky this weekend for the Independence Day holiday, revelers are again struggling to decipher the rules governing which fireworks they can purchase.
That's because depending on where you live, you may or may not be able to buy sparklers.
Maryland is one of 43 states that allow some type of consumer fireworks, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association -- but local jurisdictions can restrict sales. Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties ban all consumer fireworks. The rest of the state allows such fireworks as "snap-n-pops," "black snakes," and "Champagne Party Poppers" -- small hand-held sparklers and poppers that spit out paper confetti and snakes.
Three years ago, state legislators passed a law allowing sparklers that sit on the ground, but Ocean City and Harford and Howard counties deemed the devices illegal. From a stationary position, these "ground-based sparkling devices" -- with names like Nocturnal Vision and Nature's Fury -- spew multicolored sparks amid whistles, screams and crackles.
"Wherever you purchase the fireworks, use it in that jurisdiction," said state Fire Marshal William E. Barnard. "The biggest problem is people dragging other fireworks in from other states."
Fire officials say that with the right precautions, most legal fireworks are good, clean fun. But critics say that the 12,000 injuries caused each year by fireworks nationwide should persuade people to let the professionals handle the pyrotechnics.
State fire marshals demonstrated the difference between the legal and illegal fireworks at the Frederick County Fire Rescue Training Center yesterday. They blew up watermelons and rubber hands to show the devastating effects of using illegal quarter-sticks and M-80s.
On the lawn outside the training center, John Waldner, chief of the bomb squad at the state fire marshal's office, taped illegal quarter-sticks to poles. Resembling a mini-stick of dynamite, the devices have short fuses and blast to pieces anything to which they're attached.
A quarter-stick inserted in a watermelon blew tiny chunks 30 feet away from the explosion. Another explosion left a rubber hand in tatters.
Waldner said the devices can result in amputation or death.
Most folks expect ear-popping whistles accompanied by colorful sparks and plumes of smoke, but a loud boom or a flying, flaming projectile means it's an illegal explosive, fire marshals warn.
"Because it's not designed by NASA, you cannot predict its flight path," said W. Faron Taylor, deputy state fire marshal.
Taylor said homemade quarter-sticks are equivalent to pipe bombs. Possession of these devices could result in up to 25 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Selling or using fireworks that are illegal in Maryland but legal in other states could result in fines up to $250.
Roadside stands and retail outlets selling fireworks are required to pass inspections by state fire marshals.
Legal and illegal fireworks are packaged similarly, Barnard said, so it's worth taking time to examine the devices closely.
Detonated explosives do not go unnoticed, said Maj. Thomas Long of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office.
"People call, concerned about the noise or the possibility of fireworks starting a fire in a wooded area," he said. "And now there are a lot of dry crops -- wheat and barley. There's a concern with it starting a fire."
Some organizations think that even legal fireworks should be banned.
"Since 1910, we've been a crusader against consumer fireworks," said Margie Coloian, spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association. "They're unpredictable and dangerous. A lot of people think things like sparklers are seemingly innocent, but they can burn you with temperatures upwards of 1,200 degrees."