NEW YORK (AP) – They are a symbol of celebration, loudly illuminating the night sky and are best known in the US as the explosive exclamation point for the July 4 festivities.
No fireworks are held for Independence Day this year.
They have become a nighttime nuisance going from Connecticut to California, enraged at sleep-deprived residents and disturbing elected officials.
They all want to know: why the fascination for fireworks and where does everyone get the stuff?
“I had the same question,” said Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.
Theories range from coordinated efforts to blame those protesting police brutality to bored people blowing off steam after coronavirus closures. Most states allow at least some types of consumer fireworks, making them difficult to contain in cities like New York where they are off limits because people can drive a few hours to buy them legally.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has set up a multi-agency working group hoping to get answers, after blasts from Brooklyn to the Bronx have people in the city never desperately sleeping to actually get one.
Made up of police, firefighters and the Sheriff’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the task force conducts stabbing operations to try to stop the sale of explosives that prove to be dangerous. A 3-year-old boy was injured on Wednesday while watching fireworks from the window of his apartment.
“This is a real problem. It’s not just a quality of life problem and a sound problem, ”said the Blasio.
Many celebrations on July 4 will be smaller or completely eliminated due to coronavirus limitations. Still, the fireworks market is booming, with some retailers reporting 200% more than the same period last year, Heckman said.
Her industry had high hopes for 2020, with July 4 on a Saturday. Then came the pandemic and the closings and cancellations, leaving fireworks stores afraid they wouldn’t be able to scratch a big sales season.
Those fears have gone up in smoke.
“The sale is currently off the hook. We see this anomaly in use, ”Heckman said. “What worries us is this practice in cities where consumer fireworks are not legal.”
Officials are concerned.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said there have been too many reports of fireworks across the state where they are usually illegal.
“This is no way to let off steam,” he told reporters in the Trenton capital on Tuesday.
New Jersey bans pyrotechnics, other than sparklers and hoses, which produce smoke but do not explode, although residents have easy access to fireworks in Pennsylvania stores.
In Morrisville, Pennsylvania, Trenton’s neighbor, a large shop sits at the foot of the bridge leading to New Jersey. On Tuesday, the parking lot was nearly full, with mostly cars from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but also from New York, North Carolina, and even Texas.
Officials in Oakland, California say they have received more complaints this year about illegal fireworks and festive gunfire reports than usual before July 4. At least five fires have been associated with fireworks since late May, officials said.
In Denver, authorities seized up to 3,000 pounds (1,360 kilograms) of illegal fireworks this week during a traffic stop.
There are theories as to why fireworks have become so popular.
Some speculate on social media that the police either rip them off or give them to local teens in hopes of people blaming the protesting racist police. Another claim is that the police simply harass color communities.
“My neighbors and I believe this is part of a coordinated attack on black and brown communities by government forces,” tweeted writer Robert Jones Jr., whose recent firework reports have been retweeted thousands of times.
A video made in New York appears to show firefighters firing explosives in front of their station.
Pyrotechnics expert Mike Tockstein, who has directed hundreds of professional fireworks shows, thinks there is an easier explanation: the upcoming vacation and a country full of young people fed up with the quarantines.
“I’ve heard a lot of conspiracy theories, and none of this is based on logic or data or facts,” said Tockstein, owner of Pyrotechnic Innovations, a California-based company that trains fireworks professionals.
“Fireworks will be used across the country for a month leading up to July 4,” he said. “There is a slight increase, but I don’t think it’s more than people being trapped at home and hey, look, there are fireworks available.”
A theory that could likely be blown up: July 4 event organizers who pass surplus products to recreational users.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Heckman, “because that would be a crime.”
Those who sell professional fireworks, which are much more dangerous for amateurs to fire, require permits from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and goods are housed in secure and often guarded facilities.
“It’s like the Fort Knox of fireworks,” said Larry Farnsworth, a spokesperson for the National Fireworks Association.
Retail use is covered by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The fireworks that Heckman sees are not professional. Retail fireworks are covered at less than 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter and burst at just under 200 feet (60 meters). Professional fireworks are wider and can explode hundreds of feet higher.
Yet, at any height, they can be a nuisance to young children, pets and veterans, and others with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In Hartford, Connecticut, police say they have answered up to 200 complaints a day. Connecticut only allows fireworks that don’t explode or launch into the air, but they are legally within driving distance in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia has some restrictions on fireworks and warned of their dangers this week after a number of complaints.
“We understand that the absence of personal festivals may cause some to crave the excitement of a huge fireworks display over the river. But the simple fact is that these are extremely dangerous products, and the risks outweigh the temporary excitement of the explosions, Said Brian Abernathy, general manager of the city.
The light shows can take a while longer. Many pop-up seasonal stores have only opened this week. Tockstein predicts that more people will purchase fireworks in the coming weeks as they realize that traditional July 4 screenings will not take place.
“I think if all of these public events are canceled, more families will bring the celebration home on July 4,” Heckman said.
Klepper reported from Providence, Rhode Island. Associated Press writers Dave Collins in Hartford, Connecticut; Mike Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia; and Cuneyt Dil in Sacramento, California contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the injured child in New York was a boy and not a girl, according to new information from the police.
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