Despite the fact that fireworks are illegal in Colorado Springs, on the Fourth of July, seemingly every neighborhood in Colorado Springs puts on its own show in driveways, on sidewalks and in streets across the city. This year, the Southeast Express rode along with firefighters from the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s Station 11, which serves the Southeast.

Illegal fireworks aren't isolated to the Fourth of July or even to the summer. “Last year there were about 900 firework-related calls for CSFD throughout the year,” said Lt. Jason Wallace. “It’s all year long.”

While CSFD was visible in the community during the night of July 4, they were not enforcing the ban. “We will ask them if we can take [fireworks] from them, like an honor system,” said Wallace. “We’re not going to physically take them from them; that’s a [police] matter.”

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Fireworks confiscated by CSPD on the Fourth of July.

According to Natashia Kerr, senior public communications specialist with the Colorado Springs Police Department, CSPD had 10 officers, in two-person teams, conducting fireworks enforcement from 3 p.m. until 11 p.m. on the Fourth of July. “During that timeframe, we received 225 calls for service regarding fireworks,” said Kerr in an email to Indy reporter Pam Zubeck. “Those units were able to respond to 96 of those calls. That is in addition to the proactive fireworks-related contacts that were made by officers on different calls for service. 12 summonses were issued in total. In order to issue these summonses, we have to be able to witness the act; which is not always possible as people can hide fireworks by the time we arrive, only remnants are left upon arrival with nobody around, etc. However, even if a summons was not issued, a contact was made at those 96 calls. We also seized a large number of fireworks for destruction.”

Station 11’s fire engine drove through Southeast neighborhoods like Deerfield Hills and Pikes Peak Park, hoping the sight of their official vehicle, with flashing lights and occasional blasts from the horn, would act as a visual deterrent. It did not. Nearly every residential street the onto which the fire engine turned had residents setting off fireworks, sometimes in the street directly in front of the CSFD vehicle. By 8 p.m., Southeast was cloaked in an acrid haze from all the fireworks.

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A mortar-style firework set off directly in front of CSFD Station 11's fire engine as they drove through neighborhoods on the Fourth of July.

The firefighters aren’t trying to be a buzzkill; fireworks can pose a number of serious safety concerns. “Just a week ago there were over 50 units at a storage facility that was set on fire as a result of fireworks,” said Station 11 Paramedic Justin Sutton, referring to the June 27 fire at the Secure-Care Storage Facility on South Academy Boulevard. “Even if it’s not something that’s tied to a celebration, it’s still a concern.”

By 9:15 p.m. Station 11 was called to its first fireworks-related injury. A girl had been burned by a descending bottle rocket. Luckily her injuries were very minor, but that isn’t always the case. Matiss Kivlenieks, a 24-year-old Latvian goaltender for the National Hockey League’s Columbus Blue Jackets died on July 4 after a mortar-style firework tilted slightly and fired at him, according to reporting from ESPN.

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Firefighters from CSFD's Station 11 respond to a fireworks-related injury call.

Those mortar-style fireworks were a common sight this year, exploding in brilliant starbursts above Colorado Springs. “Wyoming is not that far for people to drive, and a lot of people go to Wyoming where it’s legal to buy the heavy stuff and bring it back here,” said Wallace.

All of the “bombs bursting in air” don’t affect people alone. Dogs across Colorado Springs were terrified by the constant barrage, leading to an uptick in strays during the holiday weekend. According to Gretchen Pressley, community relations manager for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, “This year, we had 146 pets come in as strays from Friday, July 2 through Monday, July 5,” she said. “Last year, in 2020, we were seeing very low numbers of pets coming into HSPPR overall, and we saw 119 strays come in over the Fourth of July weekend. In 2019, we saw 140 strays come in from July 4 through July 7, and in 2018 we saw 129 strays come in from July 3 through July 6. 2017 was our highest year over the last five years with 167 strays coming in.”

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Trash from illegal fireworks along Drennan Road.

Despite the nuisance and dangers of illegal fireworks, they continue to pose an enforcement challenge for Colorado Springs authorities. “While it would be ideal to have more units, we have to prioritize staffing to ensure we are responding to high priority calls for service in a timely manner,” said Kerr. “Pulling more officers away to handle only fireworks-related calls could potentially mean longer response times for those high-priority calls for service. Additionally, and more importantly, illegal fireworks are not just a law enforcement issue, and not something that we can enforce our way out of. Fireworks are incredibly dangerous for people, animals, property, and our environment; they are also illegal in Colorado Springs. With so many options to watch official and safe firework shows throughout the city, it is disappointing to see the large number of fireworks being set off illegally in city limits. While law enforcement does our part, we also need community members to be respectful of their fellow neighbors and follow city rules to keep each other safe.”

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers acknowledged the challenges of enforcing the city’s fireworks ban and encouraged residents to obey the law. “Illegal fireworks are a problem every year in Colorado Springs, and I imagine in most cities across the nation,” he said via email. “It is disappointing to me that some people are willing to break the law and put their neighbors at risk, especially after the destruction and turmoil we have witnessed in major wildfires, both locally and across the nation. While we do have dedicated firework patrols around Independence Day, prosecuting people for illegal fireworks is quite difficult, as the act of setting off a firework, or several, takes just seconds. In addition, medical emergencies and violent crime continue to occur on holidays, and we must prioritize those calls that pose an immediate threat to life safety. The bottom line is that firework safety is a matter of personal responsibility. Much like shoveling our sidewalks after a snowstorm, it is incumbent upon our residents to obey the law out of respect for the common good, not just out of fear of prosecution. We will continue to educate our community about the dangers of fireworks, and the prohibition in our City limits, and will write summons when possible, but we also encourage people to do what’s right because it’s what’s right, and to encourage their neighbors to do the same.”

Editor's Note: Pam Zubeck contributed to reporting on this piece.

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.