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In a normal year, fire safety officials encourage people to attend public fireworks displays instead of attempting to create them at home. But most fireworks shows are canceled this year because of coronavirus.
Fireworks sales are skyrocketing across the country as most public displays are canceled due to the coronavirus, prompting concerns among fire departments that this year’s Fourth of July weekend could lead to record numbers of injuries and blazes.
“Despite the warnings against at-home displays, firefighters across the country will be ready to respond as more people turn to do-it-yourself shows,” said Doug Stern, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “A firework-less Fourth of July may be a disappointment, but it doesn’t make firecrackers and bottle rockets any safer at home, and a severe traumatic injury or burn—or starting a house or vehicle fire—is a lot worse way to spend the holiday.”
This year's scarcity of professional pyrotechnic displays—which many local leaders have declared a no-go in the age of social distancing—presents a unique challenge for fire safety officials, who usually center their Independence Day outreach campaigns on encouraging people to attend public fireworks shows instead of attempting to create them at home.
“While fireworks are an emblem of July 4 celebrations, in the absence of public displays this year, we strongly encourage people to find safe and creative alternatives for celebrating the holiday,” Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy at the National Fire Protection Association, said in a statement. “Fireworks are simply too dangerous and unpredictable to be used safely by consumers.”
Fireworks sparked roughly 19,500 fires in 2018, causing five deaths, 46 injuries to civilians and $105 million in direct property damage, according to data from the association. More than 7,000 people reported injuries related to fireworks around the 4th of July holiday last year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. More than half of those injuries were burns.
But that hasn’t dampened amateur enthusiasm for sparklers and cherry bombs. Sales of consumer fireworks for some retailers have doubled or tripled in the past month compared to last year, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, which expects record-breaking sales numbers over the holiday weekend.
“The APA predicts an all-time high in backyard consumer fireworks sales and use as families prepare to celebrate Independence Day at home due to the pandemic and cancellation of large public celebrations,” Julie L. Heckman, the association’s executive director, said in a statement. The group recommends that firework users follow safety guidelines, such as reading the directions, not allowing children to handle fireworks and setting them off from a "hard, level surface."
Cities across the country are already reporting higher-than-normal numbers of calls about illegal fireworks, including noise complaints. Police in Raleigh, N.C. received 105 reports of fireworks between June 12 and June 25, up from just 16 in the same time period last year. Officials in New York City fielded more than 13,000 complaints about fireworks between June 1 and June 22, compared to 32 calls in the same time period in 2019. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told reporters in early June that calls to police about illegal fireworks in May increased by 2,300% compared to last year.
"This is a serious issue," he said. "People are frightened. People are losing sleep. Babies and kids are woken up. Pets are terrified. Our veterans and others with PTSD are experiencing real harm, and it's a real fire hazard in our city."
In addition to the nuisance, Carli said, an increase in at-home fireworks mishaps could overwhelm a public health system that’s already taxed from responding to Covid-19. Emergency rooms treated an estimated 9,100 fireworks injuries last year, according to federal data.
“Fireworks cause thousands of needless fires and injuries each year,” Carli said. “By simply choosing not to use consumer fireworks, these types of incidents can be easily prevented, lessening the strain on already overtaxed first responders and emergency room workers.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.