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Summer storms and idiots with fireworks

John Hanscombe
December 5 2023 - 12:00pm

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It erupted after midnight. Several loud explosions, the crackle of smaller ones, and flashes of light set the dogs across the neighbourhood barking in a distressing chorus of fear. The poor animals had already endured an earlier violent electrical storm and were now being terrified by fireworks.

The following morning, right on cue, Facebook posts report dogs lost and dogs found, some spooked by the storm, others by the fireworks. It's the same every year.

WATCH: Fireworks warehouse blast kills at least a dozen people in Thailand

From the October long weekend to Australia Day, beachside towns like mine play host to thousands of visitors. We welcome the vast majority of them. But not the ones who bring fireworks.

Trying to soothe the quivering dog, trying to calm my own incandescent anger, I wondered about those people on the beach and why they had come to the coast. Were they schoolies? Did they feel that being on holiday entitled them to shatter the peace of the place they'd chosen to visit? How would they feel if I did the same in whatever street they came from? Where on earth did they get the damned things?

In most jurisdictions in Australia, setting off fireworks require a permit, with stiff penalties if you're caught without one - hence the 1am detonation on the nearby beach over the weekend, when the chances of being sprung were negligible.

Despite reckless behaviour including fireworks being fired at emergency services vehicles and set off from apartment building balconies, the Northern Territory still allows the sale of fireworks to people over 18 for one day a year to mark Territory Day. People with no permits or training are given five hours to sate their explosive urges. Licensed operators say this is how fireworks end up in the southern states; people fill their cars and vans in the NT, drive south and sell them illegally.

Long gone are the days you'd buy bags of Tom Thumbs, Tuppenny bungers, Catherine wheels and skyrockets from the corner store. Letterboxes are safe now and so are children. My own love affair with fireworks ended abruptly when a kid in the neighbourhood lost an eye and a couple of fingers trying to make a bomb in his bedroom. No more, mother said, and that was the end of that.

The rules have become tighter yet we are still a country addicted to fireworks.

Peter Broelman's editorial cartoon for Tuesday, December 5, 2023.
Peter Broelman's editorial cartoon for Tuesday, December 5, 2023.

In its New Year's Eve displays, Sydney spends almost $6 million on eight tonnes of fireworks. Each year, it gets more spectacular and more expensive. You wouldn't catch me in the crowds that line the harbour but I'm happy to watch the show on TV - with the sound turned down for the dog's sake. Mind you, I do wonder if that money could be better spent.

We seem to light them at the mere opening of an envelope. And, even if entirely legal and staged by licensed pyrotechnicians, it doesn't always go to plan. Nine people were injured by a Roman candle that sprayed into the crowd at a carols by candlelight event on Sydney's northern beaches last December. The incident, caught on a smartphone camera, was terrifying. A firework malfunction was blamed.

I figure it's only a matter of time before the sound of fireworks and barking dogs is followed by the wail of an ambulance somewhere along the coast as someone learns a lesson the hard way.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Love 'em or hate 'em? Are fireworks a problem in your neck of the woods? Do we spend too much on fireworks displays? Should we have uniform laws governing fireworks to keep them off our streets? Email us: echidna@theechidna.com.au

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THEY SAID IT: "If Paris is a city of lights, Sydney is the city of fireworks." - Baz Luhrmann

YOU SAID IT: After the failure of a major new road interchange in Sydney, it's time to rethink the car in our biggest city.

Deb's no fan of public transport: "Spending more on public transport does not necessarily make using public transport more attractive. There are other issues that can put people off - for example, if you have to drive from your home to connect with public transport, where do you park your car? I know there are dedicated car parks for these purposes in the cities, but I'm sure they are filled quickly by commuters. What happens to someone wanting to use public transport later in the day? And have you ever been trapped on public transport with a lunatic swearing at everybody and throwing their arms around? Having this occur on a shiny new tram rather than an old rattler doesn't make it any easier to bear. Unfortunately, as our cities get bigger, more of us will be forced onto public transport. The comfort of car travel will be enjoyed only by the wealthy."

Gary writes: "Even before you get to the mess at Rozelle, a sign in WestConnex tunnel to exit to the city and ANZAC bridge makes no mention of either. Its destination is Wattle Street, not Wattle Street, Chippendale but Wattle Street, Ashfield. So if you're ignorant of that fact you finish at the airport. Maybe it was intended so reduce traffic on the West Link Road. I read your comments every day."

"I've never understood why people drive their cars into busy cities unless there is no other viable option," writes Jennifer. "Efficient, effective and accessible public transport should make it unnecessary. I love travelling through Sydney on a bus or a train and just watching the chaos of those fighting for a place amongst the car chaos. I don't see any reason that a person with a car should have more rights than a person without one. If we want to be equitable, the city should be accessible for walkers, prams, mobility vehicles and bicycles all travelling at a safe pace so that even children, the elderly and the disabled can enjoy the many attractions in the city."

Ian writes: "As a highway engineer who might have been involved in one or two similar projects, I can appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that would have gone into developing the WestConnex project. I also wonder why nobody saw this congestion issue coming, but suspect some people did. Projects of this size are too big for government to fund, so private consortia are required to bring in the toll road operators, big banks and international construction expertise - all focused on the fat bonuses of a completed project. Development of the design becomes commercially sensitive and the capacity for external review and public comment is severely limited. To complicate matters further, the project would be broken up into multiple stages and contracts. The history of mega-road projects is not a happy one, unless you are Transurban and can buy a financially challenged toll road at a discounted price. Governments need to find a better way of delivering these projects without being at the mercy of private consortia."

"New main roads are always affected by demographic feedback," writes John. "When the M1 was first built people worked out they could live on the Central Coast and work in Sydney. Many did, and so the road filled up in peaks. Then people adapted again, leaving earlier or later, catching the train, etc. The M2 is another good example, the road that was going to solve so many problems became a peak hour parking lot, so they fixed it by widening, with the same result. So, the Rozelle catastrophe will be ameliorated somewhat as people change their behaviour and some tweaking is done to the signage and lane allocation. However, it's another great example of how to get traffic engineering wrong."

Kevin writes: "More roads just means more cars, or is that too simple for the big-head experts."

"In my lifetime I've seen the advance of the car," writes Alison. "As a child I walked to school and it was rare to get in the little old ute to go to town, whereas making the long drive to the city was akin to a trip to the moon. We managed: we had fewer expectations, no supermarkets, no going out for meals. The proliferation of cars still bothers and frightens me in this culture of almighty rivers of traffic. I think the hippies were/are on the right track, but who these days can afford the land needed? Is the modern lifestyle a juggernaut from which there's no escape?"

Michael writes: "Sadiq Khan, Lord Mayor of London, has the better idea - a Congestion Tax and the ULEZ (Ultra Lowe Emission Zone) Tax. If you can't stop the congestion and pollution, tax those who cause it - the owners and drivers. Introducing the taxes here would give second thoughts to all those congesting drivers. Perhaps increase the tax for those cars with only one person in it, and reduce it for ride shares. I'll bet Abbott and Gay would never think of that."

"As someone who has to go from Victoria Road to the ANZAC Bridge for work I can say the new toll-less link is better than sticking to what they've done to the above ground road (I've tried both)," writes Kat. "Marginally. At stupid o'clock in the morning, both options involve multiple lanes merging into one, including the bus lane when you stick to above ground. You'd think at the very least they'd give it a clear run but as noted, making public transport easier would apparently go against the aims of the government. Also the random non-public transport vehicles would just cram into it and clog it as they often do along Victoria Road anyhow. Should more be done for and to encourage the use of public transport? Yes. Will it? Probably not. I use public transport when I'm going into the city for reasons other than work (where I'm in a work vehicle and not there for long). I can probably count how many times I do that a year on one hand."

John Hanscombe

John Hanscombe

National reporter, Australian Community Media

Four decades in the media, working in print and television. Formerly editor of the South Coast Register and Milton Ulladulla Times. Based on the South Coast of NSW.