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Federal agents in Renton demonstrate dangers of illegal fireworks

A man purchases a firework that would usually be used in a professional show. It comes in non-descript packaging, with no warning labels. He lights it with the quick fuse made of string loaded with black powder.

The firework takes off on the ground toward the man's feet. He kicks it away and with a loud boom his feet are now gone and he is toppled over on the ground.

Luckily, this man was a mannequin propped up into position to illustrate the real dangers of using fireworks and illegal improvised explosive devices.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents demonstrated the threat posed by the improper use of fireworks and illegal fireworks at a media event Friday morning at the Renton Fire Department's training center.

The demonstration was done in advance of the retail sales of fireworks which begin Tuesday, June 28.

In 2010 there were 575 fireworks incidents reported to the state Fire Marshal's Office. This includes 162 injuries, of which 50 were children under the age of 14.

Every legal firework must meet a certain standard, said Jerry Farley, who represented the fireworks industry.

Those standards usually make for a huge different in appearance between legal and illegal fireworks, he said. Usually illegal fireworks don't have a safety label and aren't colorfully packaged. They look very basic and primitive.

Brennan Phillips, who is an explosives enforcement officer with the ATF, demonstrated the most common illegal fireworks his agency encounters.

The most common is the sparkler bomb. When set off, this mass of 56 sparklers blew the mannequin in half.

They get hundreds of calls on these types of injuries because they are the easiest illegal device to make, said Phillips.

In King County last Fourth of July season someone was killed as a result of using a sparkler bomb. Another man was killed in Spokane in October for using an illegal firework known on the street as a cricket.

Crickets are small and made out of metal, which can injure and kill with the disbursement of its fragments. They also come with a 10-year federal penalty for possession and 30 years if they are used in a crime.

Phillips also demonstrated the destruction of tennis ball bombs, cardboard tube devices known as M80s, M1000s, etc., aerial fireworks and fireworks intended for sale to professional shows.

The prevalence of illegal fireworks changes over time, "but it's a steady drum beat of tennis ball bombs, the M80s and that sort of thing remain relatively consistent," said Phillips.

The ATF has had pretty good results in going after the manufacturers; they primarily focus on the manufacturing level and those that distribute them.

"[Indian reservations] is typically where we see most of the illegal diversion, is one or two of the stands at one of the tribal areas are typically the bad actors," said Phillips.

The ATF sees less sale of illegal fireworks at state-run stands.

Of concern to state fire officials last year were 18 residential fires totaling $1.4 million in loss. Four of the fires were caused by illegal devices, one by a legal device and 13 were caused by an unknown type of firework device.

State Fire Marshal Chuck Duffy said there are a number of things people can do to avoid injury. He stressed the residents need to know whether use personal fireworks is allowed in their city or in unincorporated areas. For example, private use of fireworks is banned in Renton.

Family members should talk about fireworks safety prior to use, only adults should light fireworks and they should be stored securely. Also, before using fireworks, adults should check with local authorities for restrictions and bans in the area. Fireworks should be used as intended, away from dry grass, with a bucket of water or a hose near by and they should always be cleaned up after.

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