They are a symbol of celebration, loudly lighting up the night sky and best known in the U.S. as the explosive exclamation point to Fourth of July festivities.
This year, fireworks aren’t being saved for Independence Day.
They’ve become a nightly nuisance ringing out from Connecticut to California, angering sleep-deprived residents and alarming elected officials.
All of them want to know: Why the fascination with fireworks, and where is everybody getting the goods?
“I had that 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 following coronavirus lockdowns. Most states allow at least some types of consumer fireworks, making them difficult to contain in cities like New York where they’re banned because people can drive a couple of hours away to buy them legally.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio set up a multiagency task force in hopes of getting answers, after blasts from Brooklyn to the Bronx have people in the city that never sleeps desperate to actually get some.
Made up of police, firefighters and the Sheriff’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the task force will conduct sting operations to try to stop the sales of explosives that are proving dangerous. A 3-year-old girl was injured Wednesday while watching fireworks from her apartment window.
“This is a real problem. It is not just a quality-of-life problem and a noise problem,” de Blasio said.
Many Fourth of July celebrations will be smaller or eliminated entirely because of coronavirus restrictions. Yet the business of fireworks is booming, with some retailers reporting 200% increases from the same time last year, Heckman said.
Her industry had high hopes for 2020, with July 4 falling on a Saturday. Then came the pandemic and its closures and cancellations, leaving fireworks retailers worried they wouldn’t be able to scratch out much of a sales season.
Those fears have gone up in smoke.
“Sales are off the hook right now. We’re seeing this anomaly in use,” Heckman said. “What’s concerning to us is this usage in cities where consumer fireworks are not legal to use.”
Officials have the same concern.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said there are too many reports of fireworks being set off across the state, where they are mostly illegal.
“This is no way to blow off steam,” he told reporters Tuesday in Trenton, the capital.
New Jersey outlaws pyrotechnics except for sparklers and snakes, which produce smoke but don’t explode, though residents have easy access to fireworks at shops in Pennsylvania.
In Morrisville, Pennsylvania, Trenton’s neighbor, a big shop sits at the foot of the bridge leading to New Jersey. On Tuesday, the parking lot was nearly full, with cars primarily from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but others from New York, North Carolina and even Texas.
Officials in Oakland, California, say they have received more complaints of illegal fireworks and reports of celebratory gunfire this year than is typical before the Fourth of July. At least five fires have been linked to fireworks since late May, officials said.
In Denver, authorities seized up to 3,000 pounds of illegal fireworks discovered during a traffic stop this week.
Theories abound for why fireworks have gotten so popular.
Some speculate on social media that police are either setting them off themselves or giving them to local teens in hopes people blame those protesting racist policing. Another claim says police are just harassing communities of color.
“My neighbors and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces,” tweeted the writer Robert Jones Jr., whose recent posts on fireworks have been retweeted thousands of times.
A video captured in New York appears to show fire department staff setting off the explosives outside their station.
Pyrotechnics expert Mike Tockstein, who has directed hundreds of professional fireworks shows, thinks there’s an easier explanation: the upcoming holiday and a nation filled with young people fed up with quarantines.
“I’ve heard a lot of conspiracy theories, and none of them are based in logic or data or facts,” said Tockstein, owner of Pyrotechnic Innovations, a California-based company that trains fireworks professionals.
“Fireworks are used across the entire country for a full month leading up to the Fourth of July,” he said. “There is a slight uptick, but I don’t think it’s anything more than people are stuck at home and hey, look, fireworks are available.”
One theory that can probably be blown up: organizers of canceled Fourth of July events passing surplus products to recreational users.
“Nothing could be further from the truth in that regard,” Heckman said, “because that would be a felony.”
Those who sell professional fireworks, which are much more dangerous for amateurs to fire, need licenses from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and goods are housed in secure facilities, often guarded.
“It’s like the Fort Knox of fireworks,” said Larry Farnsworth, a spokesman for the National Fireworks Association.
Retail use falls under the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The fireworks Heckman is seeing aren’t professional. Retail aerial fireworks are capped at under 2 inches in diameter and burst at just under 200 feet. Professional fireworks are wider and can explode hundreds of feet higher.
Still, they can be a bother at any height for young children, pets and veterans and others with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In Hartford, Connecticut, police say they have been responding to up to 200 complaints a day. Connecticut allows only fireworks that don’t explode or launch into the air, but they’re legal a drive away 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 the absence of in-person festivals may cause some to crave the excitement of an enormous fireworks display over the river. But the simple fact is that these are extremely dangerous products, and the risks far outweigh the momentary excitement of the explosions,” city managing director Brian Abernathy said.
The light shows could last a while longer. Many pop-up seasonal stores only opened this week. Tockstein predicts more people will buy fireworks in the coming weeks as they realize traditional July 4 displays won’t happen.
“I think with all these public events being canceled, more families will bring the celebration home for the Fourth of July,” Heckman said.