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Flames engulfed a fireworks store in Missouri on the eve of the Fourth of July, and the resulting chain of explosions rattled neighbors' windows.

The Region is a potential powder keg since about 100 fireworks stores have clustered to take advantage of a ban on fireworks retail sales in neighboring Illinois and a recently lifted prohibition in nearby Michigan. Local fire departments said they have contingency plans for when storefronts full of explosives – some as big as warehouses – catch fire, cautioning it could tie up the entire department and force neighboring departments to handle any other calls while they wait for such a dangerous, uncontrollable blaze to die out. Multiple regulations and frequent inspections aim to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring in the first place.

"There's a much greater danger level when fireworks are in a building," Hobart Fire Department Battalion Chief and Fire Inspector Steven McKown said.

Such pyrotechnic mishaps have happened before in the Region.

Three Lazer Fireworks employees in Merrillville ended up in the hospital when a multicolored fire torched the store in 1998.

"I heard a boom, boom, boom like the roar of 5,000 lions, then saw black smoke. I looked out, and it was shooting fireworks, and I thought, 'Oh my God, Boomtown is going up.' I never heard such a roar," a spectator told the Times of Northwest Indiana when Boomtown USA fireworks shop on U.S. 30 was consumed in a fire in 2002.

Aerial bombs and other high-flying fireworks shot out the roof of Johnny Rockets in south Hammond, shutting down Indianapolis Boulevard for hours, when the fireworks stand on a former Kmart property by the Little Calumet River burned down in 2005.  Big Cheap Bombs near Horseshoe Casino in north Hammond blew up in 2006, blanketing the city with a stench of sulfur.

More enforcement

Hammond responded by passing new fireworks rules to ensure safety. Fireworks stores in the city must have sprinkler systems, employ off-duty police officers for security and train employees to for instance stop smokers from entering, Chief Fire Inspector Michael Opinker said.

"They watch that door," Opinker said. "People might forget they have a cigarette and, by the time they walk in, it's all over." 

Hammond does annual inspections of all fireworks stands and then multiple checks during the busy season, checking for smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems. So does the Indiana State Fire Marshal, which issues permits to sell fireworks.

"Code enforcement officials with the Indiana State Fire Marshal inspect firework retail stores for compliance with building and life safety codes," Indiana Department of Homeland Security spokesman Riley Harden said. "These inspections occur annually and officials look at means of egress, sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems and lighting, to name a few. Indiana codes work to reduce the risk of fire related incidents."

The Porter Fire Department has a long list of things it looks for at Shelton Fireworks, including how high fireworks are stored, if exits are maintained and the general housekeeping.

"We've had no incidents other than a sprinkler malfunction that was weather-related because of a freeze about 15 years ago," Fire Chief Jay Craig said.

The Fire Department has a plan if something does happen. An alarm box at the retail warehouse would automatically dispatch the Porter and Chesterton fire departments, which can take advantage of fire hydrants on site and hook their trucks up to the sprinkler system to provide more water.

"A fireworks store does pose a lot of hazards," he said. "You would need to take a defensive attack and not make entry to the potential dangers of explosions, unless it's a small fire and you have the chance to keep the building from becoming fully involved."

Handling a fireworks blaze

The exact attack will depend on many factors, including whether it's a small stand or a a large warehouse, McKown said. Firefighters would evacuate the building and potentially neighboring buildings, but would otherwise keep their distance.

"When a building is housing explosives, there's only so much you can do," he said. "You have to fight it from the outside, keep the hose lines on that water, and keep the water streaming."

When fireworks start detonating, it's largely a matter of letting the fire burn out, McKown said. 

"In a warehouse where the fireworks continually keep igniting, sometimes the focus is to protect the area and the other buildings," he said. "The goal is keep the fire from spreading."

The Hobart Fire Department would rely on mutual aid, getting help from neighboring departments who might help battle the blaze or man the fire stations.

"Everything would be tied up for quite some time," McKown said.

Fireworks are especially dangerous for firefighters because the fireworks are projectiles that can shoot out for great distances, Gary Fire Department Chief of Operations Mark Jones said.

"It's survive and drown, let it run its course," he said. "You would hope the people self-evacuate, which they should be able to do if the place if up to code."

Firefighters likely would use ground monitors so they could work the hoses unmanned to make a wide berth, John said.

"You would want to wait until the explosions died down and wait a long time before advancing with hand lines," he said. "You'd want to drown it in a copious amount of water."

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. suggested on Twitter over the weekend, in response to the 37-year-old Hebron family man who was killed by a mortar in a tragic fireworks accident, that it may be time to reconsider Indiana's love affair with fireworks.

"Why these mortars & other dangerous explosives are legal is beyond me," McDermott tweeted. "NWI sounds like IRAQ every July 4th- we average a couple of serious injuries or deaths every year – are these explosives really worth it?"

McDermott said he loved the Fourth of July but questioned if Indiana should get out of the fireworks business because of the safety hazards.

"Why does the state allow anyone to handle a mortar without any training?" he said. "Firefighters hate these fireworks because they know what they can do."

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Store owners respond

Kris Zambo has owned Dynamite Fireworks on Calumet Avenue in Hammond since 2002. His family has been in the business for 40 years, said the Crown Point resident.

Zambo said his store and others only sell consumer grade fireworks, not professional grade explosives.

“They have increased 10-fold on the streets in recent years. That stuff is so dangerous. If they threw out all the illegal fireworks, it would be incredibly safe,” said Zambo, adding there have also been improvements in the manufacturing of “good quality fireworks” to prevent accidents and injuries and have been increased regulations.

Zambo said those increased regulations are also placed on store owners such as himself.

“We follow all the state and local guidelines, plus,” he said. “We choose to be directly wired into the fire department and we have panic buttons at every register.”

Both Zambo and Gary Shelton, manager of Shelton Fireworks in Porter, also said they are extra cautious when it comes to smoking around stores.

Zambo said no one can smoke within 100 feet of his store. Shelton said they also extend the no smoking area beyond the state-mandated 8 feet from the door and work to block people from getting too close.

Shelton, who’s business has been operating since 1994, said his building is sprinkled. They also have security guards at each door.

“We have adequate protections according to the codes. We exceed some of the codes,” said Shelton.

Both men said they are regularly inspected by the state and have to follow strict state codes.

Those codes are becoming more strict, they said.

Any store built since 2006 must be sprinkled and/or they are mandated to stay under 500 pounds of explosives, said Zambo.

Shelton added that while his store is grandfathered in, newer stores must be built out of materials other than wood.

In addition, said Zambo, his insurance company adds to regulations and mandates detailed electrical inspections that he “has never seen” in any other business he owns. He said they were mandated to upgrade to safer LED lights and change ballasts by their insurance company.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.