‘Virtually nonstop, every night’: Boom in fireworks plagues area communities

  • As the Fourth of July approaches, many cities across the U.S. are seeing an increase in fireworks exploding in neighborhoods.  Dreamstime/TNS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/29/2020 1:51:36 PM

HOLYOKE — It happens every summer: Independence Day creeps up, people spend more time outside and the neighborhood’s amateur pyrotechnician finally decides it’s high time to start lighting off Roman candles at the end of the street.

But for the past few weeks, at least one area community has been rocked by the illegal use of fireworks to an extent they haven’t ever seen before, leaving authorities wondering how to most effectively quell the public safety hazard: “For three-plus weeks it’s been virtually nonstop, every night,” said Holyoke Police Lt. James Albert.

“Some nights, our dispatch boards get inundated” with complaints about fireworks, Albert said. “I think we’ve estimated upwards of 20, 30, 40, 50 (calls) a night. That’s a lot,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”

Holyoke’s seemingly newfound appreciation for colorful sky explosions isn’t so unique as other cities across the United States have reported similar explosions of fireworks use. The news outlet Gothamist, for example, found that New York City residents have called 911 13,315 times this year for fireworks, compared to 1,007 calls during the same time period in 2019. In Springfield, the city’s fire commissioner called heavy fireworks use in the city an “epidemic,” according to The Republican/MassLive. And in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh recently said police received 600 calls this May about fireworks, up from 27 the previous year. 

In nearby South Hadley, Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen said her community has also seen an “increase in this irresponsible behavior.” The sale, use and possession of fireworks is illegal under Massachusetts state law; the penalty is a fine between $100 and $1,000.

“I request that if adults that are doing this, to lead by example and discontinue violating the law. You are risking the safety of your neighbors, not to mention their peace and quiet,” Gundersen said. “Fireworks are illegal because they are dangerous, to both the participant and the public.”

But fireworks haven’t been much of a problem in some other communities, such as Easthampton, according to Police Sgt. Dennis Scribner. “I wouldn’t say we have had any dramatic increase,” Scribner said. “I’d call them sporadic at best.”

As fireworks explode across Holyoke, some residents have aired their frustration on social media, where some complain about them and others complain about the people complaining about them.

Albert said police in the city have been cracking down on hot spots of illegal fireworks in the city, such as some areas of the Flats and South Holyoke, though the greatest concentration has been near Appleton and Elm streets. Police have put out additional patrols in an attempt to curb the use of pyrotechnics.

“We have slowed it, we’ve knocked it down quite a bit,” Albert said. “But it’s still occurring. We certainly aren’t waving a victory flag over it.”

People are aiding police with some information to help track down firework users in the city, Albert said, but they rarely snitch on the record. It also can be difficult for police to respond in the moment since fireworks happen so fast. Police did file a criminal complaint against a man who was allegedly selling fireworks from the back of his car near Appleton and Elm streets a few weeks back, Albert said.

“We either have to see it ourselves, or have somebody else tell us about it. And not only do they have to tell us about it, they have to tell us about it in a manner where we can positively identify someone and carry enough probable cause to carry the complaint through the court process,” Albert said. “And that anonymity is what’s saving these people.”

Calling the city’s firework’s situation a “monstrous safety problem” that also disturbs the peace, Albert said police have been working hand-in-hand with the city’s fire department. Holyoke Fire Capt. Kevin Cavagnac said in a statement earlier this month his department has had to extinguish “several small fires that were started by errant fireworks.”

Albert said there have been several injuries in the city due to fireworks, including one a few weeks ago where a firework went off in a man’s hand, sending him to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield with a “very significant hand injury.”

“He could have lost his hand,” Albert said. “It was bad.”

The reasons that shooting off fireworks has increased so markedly across the United States are anybody’s guess. The American Pyrotechnics Association said in a statement last week that consumer fireworks retailers have reported a record-breaking start to sales for the season. Massachusetts is the only state that continues to ban consumer fireworks, the association said.

“The APA predicts an all-time high in backyard consumer fireworks sales and use as families prepare to celebrate Independence Day at home due to the pandemic and cancellation of large public celebrations,” Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the association said in the statement.

And although the reasons behind the increase in fireworks use are mostly speculation, one thing is for sure: Nighttime has certainly become much louder.

“It’s national,” Albert said. “This isn’t just a Holyoke thing.”

Staff Writer Dusty Christensen contributed to this report. Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

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