JEFFERSON PARK — Michael Thornton was sitting on his Jefferson Park porch enjoying a glass of wine one recent evening when a loud explosion went off, scaring him so much he nearly fell out of his wheelchair.
As a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, Thornton can’t remember a year where fireworks started so early in the summer. And he’s not alone — neighbors in West Ridge, Logan Square, North Lawndale, Beverly and other parts of Chicago have noticed loud fireworks earlier this year — and more often.
Calls for fireworks complaints have skyrocketed this year in Chicago. From Jan. 1 to June 21, there were 7,042 calls to 911. There were just 842 calls during the same period last year.
That’s an increase of more than 736 percent.
Sales at border-state fireworks shops are significantly up as industry retailers are bracing for a record-breaking year, too. At one shop, sales have tripled.
Though illegal, backyard fireworks displays around the Fourth of July have been been common in Chicago for years — part of life in the city. But this year, it felt like “they started up in May,” Thornton said.
“I remember in years past there used to be bottle rockets and maybe someone would have an M-80 as the finale but I think what’s been going off now are M-1000s. You see a flash in the sky and there’s that sonic boom,” said Thornton, co-founder of The Gift Theater in Jefferson Park.
As for the loud explosion that startled him, Thornton, who has been in a wheelchair since 2003 after suffering a spinal stroke, joked that the fear could have led to a medical miracle.
“So it could have been one positive thing — to learn how to walk again,” he joked.
Tommy Kessler, who moved to Logan Square 10 months ago from Nashville, Tenn., said the fireworks set off by neighbors is a new and not-so-pleasant experience for him. At first, he confused them for gunshots.
“I was with my parents for most of the quarantine in St. Louis and just got back on June 13. At first I thought it was gunshots and freaked out a little but then it kept repeating and I figured out that it wasn’t that,” Kessler said.
West Ridge resident Christopher Jobson said fireworks in his neighborhood also seemed to start in May.
“Personally I don’t mind it, but it seems like a marked increase…People are just bored and have nothing to do,” Jobson said.
Chicago is not the only city that has seen an increase in firework-related complaints.
Boston fielded 650 fireworks complaints in May of this year, a 2,300 percent increase from the 27 fireworks complaints the city received last year in the same month, Mayor Martin Walsh said.
In June the trend continued, with 1,445 calls to police in the first week of June for fireworks complaints, up from just 22 the same week last year, according to the Boston Herald.
In Syracuse, N.Y., police reported a 225 percent increase in fireworks complaints since the beginning of the year.
Fireworks sales are up in border states
While Chicago hasn’t officially announced Independence Day celebrations will be canceled, it seems likely, as Memorial Day Fireworks and weekly firework displays on Navy Pier have been canceled since March. Several suburbs have canceled their Fourth of July displays, too.
The cancellation of municipal fireworks shows as well as boredom over the last few months as people have been cooped up because of coronavirus may have led to the increase of “backyard fireworks,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.
“I think more families will bring the Fourth of July celebration to their backyard because all the public events have been cancelled. Sales are really strong and this will be a record-breaking year for backyard consumer fireworks sales,” Heckman said.
Plus, people are home more — which leads to more complaints.
Fireworks are illegal in Illinois but many residents travel to Wisconsin and Indiana, where just over each border are a cluster of fireworks shops.
Miranda Panos of Dynamite Fireworks in Hammond, Ind., said customers have been buying more fireworks and earlier than in years past.
“It’s been a good three times as many sales, if not more,” Panos said. She estimated that 75 percent of her business comes from Illinois residents and said sales started ramping up earlier this year.
“Usually it’s the last week before the Fourth but it’s been for the last three weeks. It started earlier and increased in quantity,” Panos said. She believes shelter-in-place orders contributed to her increased sales, she said.
“Everyone has been captive in their own house and are looking for any reason to get out and do something,” Panos said.
George Bennett, a manager at Uncle Sam Fireworks, agreed. The family-owned store, which has been in business for more than 30 years, is open from 8 a.m.-2 a.m. and will soon shift to being open 24-hours-a-day to keep up with the demand, Bennett said.
“Folks have been locked in their houses and are looking for a little relief and looking for a little entertainment with their families with all the shows being canceled,” he said. “…It’s been pretty busy this year. All the stores are busy.”
Across the border in Wisconsin, sales are up, too. An employee at Phantom Fireworks in Racine said they are “significantly busier than normal.”
The increase has also spawned conspiracy theories on social media — one insinuating that the fireworks are the result of government forces to disorient and destabilize the Black Lives Matter movement and another saying the government is lighting off fireworks to scare the masses.
But Heckman and other store employees reached by Block Club said regular folks are buying the fireworks and they have not received any evidence in support conspiracy theories.
While it is illegal for Illinois residents to buy fireworks and bring them back to the state, for retailers in Indiana and Wisconsin, the only rule is that they not sell to anyone under 18 years old.
In 2018, the last year national numbers were available, more than 9,000 people were treated for fireworks-related injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Nearly 62 percent of those injuries happened during a one-month study period between June 22, 2018 and July 22, 2018.
In 2019, the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal said there were 126 injuries reported in the state and one fatality between June 23 and July 20.
Heckman said it’s important for consumers to pay attention to the instructions for use and to make sure a “responsible, sober adult is in charge of firework activities.”
Consumers should also “always be respectful of neighbors,” she said.
“It’s important to let your neighbors know if you’re going to engage in firework activities, especially if they have young children, if they have pets, if they are taking care of elderly parents and also to be mindful of our veterans who may be suffering from PTSD,” Heckman said. “You need to be respectful and courteous neighbors.”
In the event of an objection, “you should look for an safe alternate location.”
The city didn’t have much advice for those annoyed by the displays, but police want you to stop calling 911.
“Any non-emergency calls should go to 311,” police spokesperson Sally Bown said.
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