Final warning: Behave or face fireworks ban

By Elizabeth Binning

New Zealanders are being given one last chance to prove they can be responsible with fireworks.

If they fail the test, steps will be taken next year to restrict sales - a move that could eventually lead to a complete ban.

The Government says it is not prepared to accept another Guy Fawkes Day like last year's, which kept emergency service workers busy attending to hundreds of fires and injuries.

Environment Minister David Benson-Pope says he is not quite ready to ban the general sale of fireworks.

But he is issuing a final warning in the week before fireworks go on sale.

He is sending a letter to retailers asking them to emphasise safety messages and be more responsible in how they sell fireworks.

And a safety campaign will push the message "Let's make 2006 the safest Guy Fawkes ever" on a website and through pamphlets and flyers.

This campaign, which starts tomorrow, is a joint project by the Fire Service, the police and the Environmental Risk Management Authority.

Fire Service spokesman Iain Butler said the aim was to encourage people to attend public displays instead of buying their own fireworks.

But people who did buy them were urged to be careful and follow safety measures listed on the website www.guyfawkes2006.govt.nz.

Police and firefighters said last year's Guy Fawkes Day - when 1700 tonnes of fireworks were detonated - was the worst in 10 years.

During the 10 days fireworks were on sale, firefighters attended more than 700 firework-related incidents, a 70 per cent increase on 2004.

In the same time, police attended nearly 1200 incidents, nearly a quarter of which involved disorderly behaviour, bombs alarms and property damage.

The SPCA also received calls about distressed or injured animals, including a young cat found lying on a road where it had been hit by a car after being burned by fireworks.

Mr Benson-Pope said part of the rise in firework-related incidents last year could be attributed to a 40 per cent increase in the quantity of fireworks imported compared with 2004.

If there were more problems this year, the Government would be forced to take action.

"The Government is under increasing public pressure to consider new regulations to better control the use of fireworks," he says in his letter to retailers.

"A repeat of the scale of serious incidents shown last year will influence how severe the restrictions on the retail sale of fireworks for 2007 will be."

Mr Benson-Pope told the Herald options included reducing the sale period, raising the age limit for buying fireworks or restricting the quantity or types of fireworks imported.

If those restrictions failed, the eventual outcome would be a ban.

"I don't want to restrict people's freedom," Mr Benson-Pope said.

"Fireworks used safely don't do anyone any harm, but safety and consideration weren't displayed last year and we are talking about materials that are hazardous.

"I think it's inevitable that if there is a repetition of the stupid behaviour we saw last year, the Cabinet will support my suggestion that we do take some steps."

Some groups believe fireworks should be banned immediately.

SPCA chief executive Bob Kerridge said the organisation wanted an immediate ban. The education campaign and warnings to be responsible were merely delaying the inevitable, he said.

"It's no use the Government saying 'we'll educate everybody so they'll understand and be more careful'. Yeah right.

"It was this year we really wanted to see some action.

"We have to live with the campaign, so let's hope people may respond and may learn but it's a big hope, a big ask."

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