ATLANTA – For many Americans, the Fourth of July will be more intimate this year. It also could be riskier.
Saturday will be unlike any Independence Day in recent memory. From Atlanta to San Diego, hundreds of fireworks shows have been canceled as officials restrict large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, especially as infections surge across the U.S.
With fewer professional celebrations, many Americans are bound to shoot off fireworks in backyards and at block parties. And they already are: Sales have been booming. Some public safety officials say consumer fireworks in more hands means greater danger of injuries and wildfires in parts of the country experiencing dry, scorching weather.
“The general public is buying more than ever before,” said Steve Houser, president of the National Fireworks Association.
While it's not clear exactly what is driving people to shops, some sellers think fireworks are a diversion for people who have been stuck at home during the pandemic.
“We’re seeing new customers ... who usually don’t come to the fireworks tents,” said Robert Fletcher of Desert Sky Fireworks, which has locations across Arizona.
Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco have received more complaints of illegal fireworks this summer than in previous years. While most states allow at least some types of consumer fireworks, many cities prohibit them, even non-explosive sparklers. But they acknowledge it is difficult to stop people from buying them just outside city limits where they're legal.
In Arizona, which has battled wildfires for weeks, thousands of people have signed an online petition calling for Gov. Doug Ducey to ban fireworks this summer.
Delanie Thompson, 28, said she started the petition after seeing a neighbor’s house engulfed in flames last week during a wildfire in Phoenix. She said she and her boyfriend were forced to evacuate their home for 30 hours.
Thompson said she got angry when she later saw a roadside tent selling fireworks in a nearby town.
The Fourth of July is “about our independence,” she said. “Not just about fireworks.”
Authorities in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale seized nearly 4,000 pounds of banned fireworks this week after getting a tip about an illegal sales operation at a house.
Fireworks can be a big danger as many parts of the American West struggle with drought, turning vegetation into tinder for flames.
“It definitely compounds the risk for starting wildfires,” Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said of fireworks.
The center is predicting more wildfires than usual in July across a swath of the U.S. West. And fires started by retail fireworks tend to burn near homes, said Gardetto, who has heard them explode every day for the last week in her neighborhood.
Fires are just one cause for concern. Some doctors fear injuries will increase this year as more people experiment with fireworks at home.
In Ontario, California, a man in his 30s had his left hand blown off Thursday while lighting illegal fireworks, police said. He lit an aerial device but it didn't go off immediately, only detonating after he approached it, authorities said.
Dr. Erin Miller, a hand surgeon at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, said she amputated 42 fingers due to fireworks injuries last year while she was on call during the Fourth of July.
She has simple advice for revelers: Do not use larger fireworks like mortars and cherry bombs.
“Do not mix alcohol or any other substances if you're choosing to use fireworks,” she added.
But not everyone is as alarmed by the increased interest in consumer fireworks.
“It’s business as usual for us,” said Chris James, a spokesman for the Glendale Fire Department.
The agency will have extra units on standby like usual for the holiday, he said. He recommends having water and a fire extinguisher nearby.
“It’s basic common sense we try to preach,” James said.
Fire departments and many sellers also urge people to have a sober “designated shooter,” said Houser of the National Fireworks Association.
Some in the industry believe monthslong lockdowns during the pandemic explain the increased interest in blowing off steam with fireworks.
“We’ve all been cooped up at home. We all have a lot of added stresses," said James Fuller, a spokesman for TNT Fireworks. “I think a lot of folks want to feel good again."