Wisconsin Fireworks Stores Are Busy; Safety Experts Worry

Jul 2, 2020

Health officials are issuing the standard safety warnings about using fireworks use this week. It may be though that more people should be listening to those warnings as more residents of Wisconsin and the nation, for various reasons, may be setting off their own fireworks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a lot of community fireworks displays to be canceled, or altered so people don't gather in one area. If people still need a fireworks fix, one place they can go to buy their own is the West Frontage Road along Interstate 94 in Caledonia. 

Two fireworks stores there were very busy Wednesday afternoon.

Outside one, a woman from Gurnee, Ill., who gave her name as Nora, left with several packages. She says COVID-19 concerns have shut down the fireworks show in her city.

"So we've got to make our own show. It’s tradition. Kids look forward to that,” Nora told WUWM.

A container of firecrackers inside one of the fireworks stores in Caledonia.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Inside the crowded store, only a few people had on masks, and there was only occasional physical distancing as shoppers scooped up boxes of firecrackers, roman candles and flaming balls with brand names like Big Time.

At least two signs said the store did not sell M-80s, illegal explosives originally made for the military. But it still looked the place like could supply many a bright and loud night.

Outside the other Racine County store, there were so many people waiting that food trucks were on hand. The line to get inside was too long for us, but it was easy to find happy shoppers exiting. A Waukegan man, who gave his name as Chris, says after many months worried about COVID-19, and the economy, it's time for some fun.

"It's celebration. Me personally, I like the booms, I like the pretty lights. My kids are more smoke people. They just want smoke bombs,” Chris said.

A man, who identified himself as Rich, from Milwaukee says he found the fireworks he wanted.

"I got some nice medium ones, that'll go 100 feet in the air. These [other ones] will go 300. Get 'em off quick before the police show up. I don't know. We'll see,” Rich said, laughing.

The stores also sell a type of fireworks known as Roman candles.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Despite the ability in Wisconsin to buy fireworks that shoot into the air, they're not supposed to be used in many communities. 

In fact, many local governments have rules over what can be lit or shot off. The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department has produced a video reminding people that fireworks are illegal in the county, including where deputies patrol.

In the video, Deputy Sheriff Kristine Rodriguez states, "Milwaukee County prohibits the setting off of fireworks in parks and parkways. Don't break the law and jeopardize your safety or the safety of others."

Rodriguez told WUWM in an interview that she understands some neighborhoods consider setting off fireworks a tradition. 

"I grew up in the inner city, on Milwaukee's south side. As a kid, it was very normal to see young adults purchase these fireworks, and you'd see kids in the alley lighting them and running off," Rodriguez said.

But Rodriguez says she also remembers children being hurt, winding up in the hospital. She doesn't want a repeat, especially when many people are already hospitalized with COVID-19.

Besides trying to make up for the absence of community fireworks displays, there's been another reason for more fireworks lately — nationwide protests over deaths in police custody.

On the evening of June 23, Black Lives Matter protesters set off numerous fireworks while blocking traffic at the intersection of 35th Street and Fond du Lac Avenue in Milwaukee.

Nationally, some protesters have said they want to celebrate victories or defy the police. 

But Deputy Sheriff Rodriguez says she has also heard some protest leaders urge people to cool it.  "And that's really helpful for us as well. I think as long as we're spreading this message together as a community, that really helps,” she said.

The safety message goes out to the suburbs and rural areas of Wisconsin, too. Andrew Beckett is a spokesperson with Wisconsin Emergency Management. He cited statistics from the state and federal health agencies.

"In 2019, there were 91 emergency room visits in the state due to fireworks-related injuries. Nationally, we're talking 180 people a day, on average, going into emergency departments with fireworks-related injuries, in the month around the Independence Day holiday,” Beckett said.

Safety experts note that loud fireworks can trouble kids and adults who have sensitive hearing. Many pets and wildlife can suffer, too, as some people set off their own fireworks display.