In the run-up to New Year’s Eve, officials are pleading with residents to take caution and not use illegal fireworks.

Shooting off amateur fireworks is a risky activity, and precautions should be taken if private residents choose to use them, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said at a media briefing late Tuesday afternoon.

Personal responsibility is paramount, he said, especially given how widespread their use is. Outcomes could range from somebody losing a finger to an explosion causing a fast-spreading fire.

Blangiardi invoked the Aug. 8 wildfire that burned much of Lahaina on Maui and killed at least 100 people, saying that Oahu is not immune to similar disasters.

“It’s not anything that we’re fabricating,” he said. “And this really quite honestly becomes about personal responsibility, and not a matter of law enforcement.”

Backed up by City Council members and chiefs from the fire, EMS and police departments, Mayor Rick Blangiardi appealed to the public to be careful if they use fireworks on New Year’s Eve. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Indeed, when it comes to amateur fireworks, law enforcement is apparently difficult.

Firecrackers are allowed with a permit on special occasions like New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year and the Fourth of July. Aerial fireworks are technically illegal, but Honolulu residents can still hear them explode on seemingly random nights throughout the year — and especially on holidays.

Analyzing five years of data, Civil Beat found in March that 94% of fireworks citations do not result in charges being filed. In 2023, there has so far been only one arrest out of about 137 calls received, said Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan.

Pressing charges requires evidence, which is difficult to produce when the evidence “explodes in the sky,” Department of the Prosecuting Attorney spokesperson Brooks Baehr told Civil Beat in March.

More than one task force has been created over the years to figure out how to deal with illegal fireworks. 

The most recent, enacted by Act 67 during the 2023 state legislative session, is intended to develop “a comprehensive strategic plan to stop the importation of illegal fireworks and explosives into Hawaii; promote compliance with the state fireworks control laws; and ensure the safety and security of the airports, harbors, and other facilities and institutions in the State against the discharge of illegal fireworks and explosives.”

Each county’s police chief is a member of the task force. But Logan was unsure about the task force’s progress was when asked about it.

“As far as the status, I haven’t gotten an update on where they’re at,” he said. He added that the state Department of Law Enforcement held a recent amnesty event where residents could drop off their illegal fireworks with no questions asked.

Honolulu Fire Chief Sheldon Hao said extra personnel will be on duty on New Year’s Eve. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The city’s plan is to stock up resources on New Year’s Eve – firefighters, paramedics, fire engines – so that they’re ready to be deployed where needed, “especially on the west side and in the central locations,” said Fire Chief Sheldon Hau. Those two areas are known for their resident-led shows.

But human resources can be a challenge. While the fire department tends to be well-staffed, vacancies abound in the police department. And a temporary staffing shortage meant that about one-third of ambulances were out of service from midnight to noon Sunday, Hawaii News Now reported.

Twenty-six new graduates have entered the department since then, said Department of Emergency Services Director Jim Ireland, and the department is offering overtime pay for staff members who pick up a New Year’s Eve shift.

A few professional fireworks shows are happening on New Year’s Eve, including at Wai Kai in Ewa Beach, offshore Waikiki, at Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore and offshore Ko Olina on the west side, according to city officials.

In Salt Lake City, city officials launched a drone formation show this Fourth of July as an alternative to the hazards of pyrotechnics. 

Honolulu is not currently considering doing the same. Privately launched fireworks are so ingrained in Oahu’s culture that it can be difficult to lure people away from them, said Blangiardi. 

While drone shows are expensive, he said, using them as a way to draw residents away from launching their own explosives would be a worthwhile investment “if we thought that would happen,” he said.

Aerial fireworks explode across the sky from Kymberly Pine's backyard in Ewa Beach on Jan. 1, 2021.
Aerial fireworks explode across the sky as viewed from former City Council member Kymberly Pine’s backyard in Ewa Beach on Jan. 1, 2021. (Kymberly Pine/2021)

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