Flamethrowers spark safety concerns, controversy

James David Dickson

Warren — Michigan’s third-largest city has decided to make it illegal to build, store or use flamethrowers, but controversy over the fire-shooting devices may just be heating up.

At least two Midwest companies — one in Metro Detroit, the other in Ohio — recently began producing flamethrowers for sale online to retail customers, sparking debate over whether the products need to be regulated for safety reasons.

Traditionally, flamethrowers have been used by troops in combat, firefighters during training exercises and by parks and forestry workers to clear brush and eliminate weeds and invasive plants.

Warren’s ban, passed by City Council in a 7-0 vote Sept. 8, appears to be a rarity. There are no federal regulations governing flamethrowers, and according to XMatter, the Ohio-based firm, just two states address the devices: California, which requires owners and users to obtain a permit, and Maryland, which bans flamethrowers.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts pushed for the ban, warning of “potentially disastrous consequences” if flamethrowers fall into the wrong hands.

“Nothing that can reach 2,000 degrees is ‘fun,’” Fouts told The News.

The company’s X15 flamethrower weighs 49 pounds, holds 3.3 gallons of 90 percent diesel/10 percent gasoline mix and shoots flames up to 50 feet, according to XMatter’s website. Cost: $1,599.

Ion Productions, a Metro Detroit company, produces an even cheaper model, the XM42, for $899. “The world’s first fully handheld, grab and go flamethrower” shoots fire 25 feet or more, according to the company’s website.

Warren’s ordinance, which takes effect Sept. 28, outlaws any device that can shot a “combustible or flammable liquid or gas a distance of more than three feet.” The measure says flamethrowers “pose a significant risk of starting fires, damaging property and/or causing physical injury,” especially in light of Warren’s “high population density.

Blowtorches and other devices that shoot flames three feet or less are specifically exempted, as are any law enforcement officer who is on duty and “acting within the scope of his or her employment.”

Violating the ordinance would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine. The measure authorizes police to seize flamethrowers they find.

Fouts isn’t the only politician to see flamethrowers as a danger. On Thursday, State Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, announced that she had introduced legislation to ban flamethrowers statewide.

“There is no good reason for anyone to have or use a flamethrower,” Roberts said in a statement. “These are dangerous devices, and currently there is nothing in our state laws that prevent anyone — adult or minor — from buying a flamethrower. Owning a flamethrower is a disaster waiting to happen.”

Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for Michigan House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, said it’s “too soon to tell” what action, if any, the Legislature will take on flamethrowers this session.

Chris Byars, president and CEO of Ion Productions, brushed off Warren’s new ordinance and Fouts’ criticism of flamethrowers.

“We’re not in Warren, and no one owns one in Warren. ... (Fouts) believes in forcing everyone to follow his will and prohibit anything he doesn’t like,” Byars said. “He’s not the dictator of the world, he’s the mayor of Warren. Big deal.”

He also said his company is filling a legitimate need for the devices.

“This is not some mass-produced on-the-shelves-everywhere kid’s toy,” Byars said. “This is a device designed for responsible adults to use in a manner in accordance with the user manual. ... “Our video will be coming out soon to dispel the idiotic myths and fear mongering that the mayor and the press are promoting to make an eye-catching story.”

But Warren Fire Commissioner Skip McAdams said he shares Fouts’ concerns, given that the city has some 50,000 residences and 15,000 businesses. According to the latest census figures, Warren has 135,099 residents.

“I don’t see any good purpose for a flamethrower in an urban environment,” McAdams said.

Michael O’Brian, president of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs, has similar concerns, saying the group “would be in support” of a state ban on flamethrowers.

O’Brian, who is also the fire chief in Brighton, said he has discussed the issue briefly with the association’s lobbyists, though he admits, “it’s not up to the forefront yet.”

“We try to limit the impact of fire on our communities,” he said. “Fighting fires puts firefighters at risk.”

Neither Fouts, McAdams nor O’Brian is aware of any fires caused by flamethrower misuse in Michigan.