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Fireworks Law Ignites Safety Concerns and Boosts Sales

For some New Hampshire residents, the Fourth of July means it’s time for fireworks in the backyard. The state has long been one of the few states in the region to allow this practice.  But this year it's causing new safety concerns because more dangerous types of fireworks are now on sale.

At Phantom Fireworks in Londonderry, customers like Doug Yoho and Tammy Benjamin are shopping for their favorite fireworks.

“Jumping Jacks. These are always a favorite. You know, for us. They’re just a little thing but we like them. They make a funny noise that goes off. It’s kind of unique to them.”

But this year, they’re also picking out some potent fireworks that weren’t available until last year called reloadable mortars. Those and others like parachutes have New Hampshire’s state fire marshal pretty concerned.

“The parachutes present a serious issue for the fire departments in that they can drift for considerable distance before they come back to rest and they can have actual fire in them as they come back to earth and they’ve been known to cause a lot of brushfires.”

Fireworks, like parachutes, became legal a few weeks before the fourth of July last year when state law changed without much fanfare. 

For the past 13 years, New Hampshire kept control of fireworks in the state by managing two lists.  One was a list of permissible fireworks and the other of illegal fireworks. A review committee tested new devices and decided whether or not to allow them.

Now that review committee is an advisory committee. It no longer tests new fireworks and it only meets once a year. And that first list, the permissible fireworks list… no longer exists.

Essentially, the state trusts that devices already tested and passed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission are safe. The only types of consumer fireworks that are still illegal in the state are firecrackers, bottle-rockets and anything that produces just smoke as an effect.

The first item taken off the illegal fireworks list has also gotten the most attention.

“These are called reloadable mortar shells,

That’s Patrick Knepp who works at Alamo Fireworks in Londonderry.

and what they are is one cardboard tube. And depending on which model you get a bunch of different reloadable mortar shells. You drop ‘em in one at a time. The fuse hangs out over the top of the tube. They launch into the air and they’re your classic firework. Goes off, nice break, lots of color. Probably about a good thirty foot in diameter for the breaks.”

Mortar technology isn’t anything new, it’s the ability to reload the same tube over and over again that’s novel to the New Hampshire consumer. That’s also why it’s a serious concern for fire safety officers.

Monday afternoon, the Fire Marshal’s office presented a fireworks safety demonstration.  Fire investigator Chris Wyman placed a watermelon above a mortar, to substitute a person’s body part.

“We’re gonna shoot on one, ready? Three, two, one! [two explosions] That is significant. That was solely shear velocity that went through that watermelon and broke that watermelon apart. You heard the effect go off actually seconds later. Shear velocity coming out of that mortar. So you can understand that if you had a portion of your body, a hand or God forbid even your head over that device when you lit it off, you can see the impact that it has.”

It’s that kind of impact that has Fire Marshal Degnan hoping to see reloadable mortars put back on the illegal fireworks list.

 “When this law went into effect, it wasn’t one week to the day following the time that that went into effect that we had a gentleman who had set them off and one blew apart. He had shrapnel in his leg as well as his son lost an eye.”

Nonetheless these mortars are a huge hit in the stores. Vice President Matt Shea of the New Hampshire based Atlas Fireworks Factory says profits have gone up about eight percent since the law passed. And customers, like Doug Yoho and Tammy Benjamin are ecstatic.

“They make a pretty good liftoff so you hear it take off, so you hear the foomp and then you get the bang with the effect so that’s what we like about them. That’s what I like about them. Ya, the sound at the beginning. The foomp.”

While the state law has changed, New Hampshire communities still have the latitude to create ordinances that limit the use of fireworks or ban them outright. A list of community restrictions is available at the department of safety website or in most fireworks stores.


The State Fire Marshal’s office suggests purchasing devices appropriate to the property they are going to be launched in. If a fire is caused as a result of using fireworks, even legally and appropriately, the user can be civilly liable.

Warn everyone in the area before lighting fireworks and maintain a safe distance. Always read the safety instructions on and inside the packaging. Place mortars on flat surfaces and stabilize them with sandbags.

If a firework device fails to launch, you are advised to wait twenty minutes before approaching it. If it still doesn’t launch after twenty minutes, submerge the dud into a bucket of water and return it to the retailer for proper disposal. Never relight a fuse and remember a standard safety fuse has about three seconds for every inch.

Use gloves, earplugs and safety glasses when lighting a device and have a method of extinguishment readily available. You must be twenty one years of age or older to purchase or possess consumer fireworks. Eighteen years old if you have an active military ID.


Regular Reloadable Mortar Launch



Blowing up a Watermelon

ReloadableMortar with Shell Loaded Incorrectly



Before becoming a reporter for NHPR, Ryan devoted many months interning with The Exchange team, helping to produce their daily talk show. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire in Manchester with a major in Politics and Society and a minor in Communication Arts. While in school, he also interned for a DC-based think tank. His interests include science fiction and international relations. Ryan is a life-long Manchester resident.

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