No fireworks for Kealakehe grads

  • Graduate Hiilawe Manoi records the fireworks at the end of Kealakehe High School's commencement ceremony in 2016. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Kealakehe High School graduates watch fireworks at the end of the 2017 commencement ceremony. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Fireworks have lit up the sky for years to celebrate Kealakehe High School’s graduating seniors, but changes made more than a year ago to the county’s fire code are putting an end to the festive tradition.

The new regulation, which restricts the zoning areas where fireworks displays are permitted came as part of a wholesale revision of the county’s laws related to fireworks as part of an effort to align more closely with state law.

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The news is a disappointment to the school’s seniors, whose class will be the first in years to go without the traditional spectacle at graduation next month.

“It’s Kealakehe’s tradition,” said Sarah Chang, student body president. “It’s a send off.”

The change in local ordinance came at the end of 2016, after the Hawaii County Council unanimously approved the bill.

Among the changes to law were those regulating aerial devices, display fireworks and devices considered “articles pyrotechnic” and when and where they can be set off.

The amended county fire code, which uses similar definitions for those devices as state law, explicitly forbids the ignition or discharge of display fireworks, aerial devices or articles pyrotechnic in areas that are zoned residential or agricultural.

That includes the grounds on which Kealakehe High School is situated. No other West Hawaii school lights fireworks like has been the Waverider tradition.

Aerial devices, display fireworks and articles pyrotechnic are defined and regulated separately from those considered “consumer fireworks” — those intended primarily for retail sale — and firecrackers.

The County Council in November 2016 unanimously approved the amendments to the fire code, and then-Mayor Billy Kenoi signed the bill two weeks later.

Joie Agard, senior class president at the school, said they found out that fireworks weren’t going to be allowed at graduation about a month into last summer.

Initially, she said, student leaders thought there still might be a chance to hold on to the tradition, given that the Class of 2017 was able to include the fireworks even after the law changed.

But Hawaii Fire Department fireworks auditor Mike Matsui said the permit for 2017’s graduation ceremony had already been approved by the time Kenoi signed the bill.

That didn’t stop student leaders at the school from meeting every week to try and resolve the issue as part of their efforts to organize graduation activities.

“We still are,” Chang said.

The fireworks have been a part of the school’s graduation ceremony for years and, for the students, are an integral part of the event.

“It’s a goodbye done right,” Chang said.

“It’s not just for us,” added Agard. “It’s more to be able to include the community in the paramount of our high school experience.”

Agard, Chang and their peers are still holding out hope that something could change between now and graduation to allow the spectacle to go forward, and Agard said they’re considering a petition.

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After all, she said, they don’t want Kealakehe High School’s future graduates to go without the fireworks celebration either.

“It doesn’t just affect our class,” Agard said. “It affects the other classes after us as well.”

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