Consumer fireworks sales booming as public celebrations are limited

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By Correne Martin and Audrey Posten


As many communities have canceled their public Fourth of July fireworks this year due to coronavirus concerns, citizens may find themselves looking to set off their own backyard fireworks to celebrate. 

The safest and most lawful way to experience fireworks is to wait for shows run by professionals. Yet, for people who choose to ignite their own fireworks, emergency management and law enforcement officials encourage them to take safety precautions and know the laws and local ordinances. 

Wisconsin Fireworks Law 2014 allows the sale and use, without a permit, of sparklers shorter than 36 inches long, stationary cones and fountains, toy snakes, smoke bombs, caps, noisemakers, confetti poppers with less than a quarter grain of explosive mixture, and novelty devices that spin or move on the ground. 

“These don’t have regulations,” Prairie du Chien Chief of Police Kyle Teynor said. “It’s those that have the propulsion off the ground that are regulated. If it goes bang or leaves the ground, it’s illegal in Wisconsin, unless you have a permit.”

Without a signed permit from a mayor, village president or town chair, it is illegal to use any other fireworks, including, for example, firecrackers, torpedoes, roman candles, bottle rockets and mortars, and Chinese lanterns in Wisconsin, according to state statute 167.10. 

“No permits are issued for these in the city, to my knowledge, unless it’s a pretty special occasion,” Teynor said, acknowledging a local tavern that obtained a permit in previous years, but noting that its event was regulated by both the city and police department. “I don’t believe the city would issue Joe Citizen a permit.”

Although Iowa state law changed in 2017, allowing for the sale of consumer fireworks for the first time since the 1930s, use is still prohibited by many local governments. In Clayton County, several communities—including Marquette, McGregor, Monona and Elkader—forbid the use of fireworks by residents unless permitted by city authorities.

The ban does not extend to residents living outside city limits in Iowa, however. In rural Clayton County, people can obtain a no-cost fireworks permit from the county auditor’s office. 

One key purpose for a permit being issued, Clayton County Auditor Jennifer Garms noted, is so the sheriff’s office and local fire departments are aware of when the displays will occur.

“We also recommend that those holding the display take the time to alert their neighbors of the display so they may take precautions as needed,” she said.

At Cheapo Depot, in Bridgeport Township, the shelves are stocked with skyrockets and multi-shot cakes with labels that read, “Warning: Shoots Flaming Balls.” 

Manager John Schmitz said, “Our business is booming. Certain families are all about the safer, smaller items. But the big shells and big cakes sales are way up, three times more than usual.”

Schmitz said many of his customers have been repeat buyers this year, two to three times already. He shared that his customers who usually spend $200-$300 are spending $800-$1,000 this year.

“The talk of our customers is everyone’s getting together for the Fourth. A lot of people around here are heading out to the farm,” Schmitz said. He recognized that “common sense is the big thing” when it comes to safety. He provided a few tips:

•Only buy from reliable sellers. 

•Wear protective clothing. 

•Don’t let kids play with or ignite fireworks. 

•Limit alcohol use when using fireworks. 

•Be sure other people are out of range when lighting fireworks.

•Always have water ready.

•Light one at a time, from a smooth, flat surface. Then move back quickly.

•Never throw or point fireworks at others, including animals. 

•Keep pets indoors to reduce the risk they will run loose.

•Be considerate of neighbors.

“Most fireworks have some sort of explosive component and this can, and is often, underestimated. If we add in alcohol consumption, which is typical of celebrations, the risk for everyone’s safety increases substantially,” said Elkader Police Chief Mitch Seitz. “Depending on the type of firework, negligence can easily cause injuries that have permanent results.”

Seitz also reminds people that not everyone enjoys fireworks. The sharp cracks of the explosions can negatively affect people suffering from PTSD. Animals also have difficulty dealing with noise.

“We want everyone to enjoy their time,” he said, “but that’s impossible if things are not safe.”

Chief Teynor, and his counterpart at the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Dale McCullick, said a typical call is not just a break in the peace, but more when neighbors are experiencing recurring frustrations or anxiety due to explosive fireworks. 

“For the most part, people are responsible,” McCullick said. “We do investigate, on a case-by-case basis.”

Teynor added that, when making a house call regarding fireworks, his officers first provide education about the laws. If violations are recurring, citizens usually receive a warning first before apprehension and citations. That last part is mostly reserved, he said, “for those people who set off another firework before we leave the block.”

In Wisconsin, disobeying fireworks laws can be punishable by a forfeiture of up to $1,000, and in Iowa, as a simple misdemeanor. 

Despite local bans on consumer fireworks, people can still enjoy dazzling light shows this weekend. The Gays Mills Fire Department is launching its annual display on Saturday, July 4, at dusk (about 9:30 p.m.), at the Log Cabin Park. In Iowa, both Monona and Marquette are holding their fireworks displays on Saturday, July 4, at dusk.

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