Fireworks an issue in crowded Harris County

The lack of ability to regulate firework usage and sales in unincorporated Harris County poses several issues for county officials, including noise and safety problems in heavily populated residential areas.

"Unincorporated Harris County has 1.6 million people," County Judge Ed Emmett said. "In the rest of the state when you're talking about unincorporated parts of the county it's rural areas, but here you have a lot of people who get bothered by the noise."

For a 10-day period this summer, firework stands will open for business in Cy-Fair and other parts of unincorporated Harris County, where it is legal to shoot off fireworks during the Fourth of July and New Year's.

While many other municipalities, such as the city of Houston and smaller cities like Tomball and Jersey Village, do not allow firework usage, county governments can only do what the Texas constitution or legislature allows.

"Counties are an arm of the state, and as a result, we don't have the authority to ban fireworks in the general sense like cities do," Emmett said.

Fireworks legislation

During the 83rd legislative session this spring, state Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, authored House Bill 107, which would have given counties with more than 3.3 million residents the ability to regulate or prohibit firework usage and sales to promote public health, safety and welfare. She has carried the same legislation for four sessions, but has not received the support needed from other lawmakers to pass the bill.

"The fireworks stands and operators are small business people and a lot of time are operated by churches and schools that use [the revenue] as fundraisers," Harless said. "When you talk about regulating fireworks, in essence you're talking about putting out a small business and someone's livelihood."

Due to the population restriction in the bill, the piece of legislation would only affect Harris County, which has a unique situation compared to the rest of the state, Harless said.

"Our houses are right next door to each other, and there's very little undeveloped land," she said.

During this year's legislative session, Harless needed five votes to move the bill out of committee, but only received four due to lack of support and worry that if the law passed, it could affect other counties in the future.

"They say it's a slippery slope, and the next thing you know they'll regulate fireworks across the state and put small business people out of business," Harless said.

According to the bill's fiscal note, there would be a marginal reduction in state and local tax revenue if county commissioners decided to regulate the sale of fireworks. If the bill had passed, anyone who violated the regulation could be fined up to $100.

Although Harless' bill did not pass through the House, Emmett said he wishes the county could be given more control and hopes Harless continues to work on the legislation.

"Her district is the classic example—since it's unincorporated and one subdivision after another, fireworks can be a dangerous thing to have," Emmett said.

Noise and safety

County commissioners do have the authority to get involved with firework regulations during times of drought.

"Then we can ban missiles with rockets or sticks and bottle rockets," Emmett said. "If the fire marshal tells us our drought index is high enough to do it there's a vote we have to take, but as long as I've been here, anytime there's been an opportunity we've banned aerial fireworks."

During the past two years, commissioners court has used the Keetch-Byram Drought Index to regulate firework usage. In July 2011, commissioners restricted all firework usage when the KBDI reached nearly the top of the 800-point scale. Most recently in December 2012, commissioners restricted aerial fireworks when the index reached 575.

Regardless of the bans, the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department responded to nearly 20 fires caused by fireworks in 2011, according to data from Harless' office, and other fire departments responded to more than 40 others in Harris County.

"With the fins and rockets, there is no control over where they land," Harless said. "They go into other peoples' yards and pools, and it doesn't stop at 10 p.m.—it goes on until 2 or 3 a.m."

In addition to the fire concerns, the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office typically hears reports about trash being left out in the streets after the night of the Fourth of July, said Lt. Todd Mitchell.

"All we can do is try and get the word out about safety concerns and picking up trash once you've completed shooting fireworks," he said. "We're in the middle between the industry and the consumer, and we try to work between both of them."

In Cy-Fair, there are numerous firework stands across the area, but one of the largest companies is Top Dog Fireworks, with two stores in Cy-Fair.

"There's a number of rules people need to follow [when shooting off fireworks], but mostly it's about being careful and using common sense," said Sue Davis, spokesperson for Top Dog.

The company offers shooter boxes to customers, in which fireworks can be placed so that if it falls over, the fireworks will stay in the box and contain the debris.

"We always recommend people pick up the debris," Davis said. "Even though we've had rain, parts of the area are dry, so don't shoot onto roofs or wooded areas."

By Marie Leonard
Marie came to Community Impact Newspaper in June 2011 after starting her career at a daily newspaper in East Texas. She worked as a reporter and editor for the Cy-Fair edition for nearly 5 years covering Harris County, Cy-Fair ISD, and local development and transportation news. She then moved to The Woodlands edition and covered local politics and development news in the master-planned community before being promoted to managing editor for the South Houston editions in July 2017.