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Backyard fireworks gain power and popularity

For backyard patriots, the rockets available this Fourth of July are flashier, more creative and louder than ever before.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For backyard patriots, the rockets available this Fourth of July are flashier, more creative and louder than ever before.

Thanks to an increase in the legal limit of the amount of pyrotechnic material allowed in consumer fireworks — the kind purchased in roadside trucks and shot off private lawns — a whole new class of recreational explosive has become available to amateur enthusiasts, said Harry Chang of Black Cat Fireworks Inc.

At the same time, the use of backyard fireworks has more than doubled since 2000, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. That has caused concern among some public safety groups that the rise in both popularity and firepower could prove a combustible mix.

"It's like how Giorgio Armani might develop a pair of jeans that the average person could never have, but eventually lesser designers come out with their own versions," Chang said. "Over the years, smaller, safer versions of professional fireworks have trickled down to consumers."

A rise in patriotism
Julie Heckman, executive director of the pyrotechnic industry group, credits the growing popularity of fireworks to a rise in patriotism after the millennium celebrations followed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Last year, Americans used 280 million pounds of display and backyard fireworks, nearly 10 times the amount used in 1976, the year that Heckman said "put the firework industry on the map" with America's bicentennial celebrations.

Chief among recent innovations is the multishot aerial, shooting rockets of varying hues up to 100 yards in the air. Chang called it a "display in a box," and they range from a few dollars for multi-shot flaming balls to upwards of $100.

Backyard pyrotechnicians can also find fireworks in a wider variety of colors, including magenta, lemonade and the difficult to create deep blue, along with effects that were once the sole purview of professionals, like rockets that burst into bow ties, stars and happy faces.

But not everyone's smiling. In Cynthia D'Amour's neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Mich., the holiday displays make the air smell for days and turn her Chihuahua-pug mix, Raindrop, into a nervous wreck. She sends Raindrop to stay with her parents, away from the noise.

"It isn't fair we have to give up our dog or drug her so a bunch of normally nice folks can be yahoos for a few hours," says D'Amour, 43.

Looser laws behind growth
The growing use of fireworks has been helped by looser laws. Five states have opened to fireworks or relaxed laws since 2000, Heckman said, though Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island still ban them completely out of safety concerns.

Doug Edelman of St. Peters, Mo., chalks up excessive noise to teenagers with M-80s and bottle rockets, not more sophisticated home displays.

"I prefer to emphasize visual displays over noise," he says. "So I focus on such items as ground displays with flaming balls and showers of sparks. I also enjoy aerial burst shells, as they provide a visual treat to the neighborhood."

Still, the National Fire Protection Association advocates a total ban on consumer fireworks. More fires typically are reported in the U.S. on Independence Day than on any other day of the year, said spokeswoman Lorraine Carlie.

"We feel fireworks are too risky a product for the general public to use," she said. "There's a big problem with fires starting when they hit buildings or dry, grassy areas."

In 2006, the risk of injury was two-and-a-half times greater for children aged 10-14 than for adults, she said.

"Parents underestimate how dangerous fireworks can be. With alcohol in the mix, a bunch of people and the dark, the Fourth of July is an incredible holiday to work the ER because of all the stuff that happens," said Dr. Denise Dowd, who works in the emergency division of Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

Proponents says products are safer
Industry representatives counter that the products come with instructions restricting them to use by adults only. They also tout what they say has been a 91 percent decrease in the rate of firework-related injuries since the bicentennial, even as fireworks have become popular at a host of non-patriotic events.

Pyrotechnician John Steinberg has put on displays at Little League games, weddings and a celebration of the full moon.

"I've shot them off of barges, cliffs, rooftops, in cities, out of fields," said the Baltimore resident.

For him, it's a chance to inspire fans to try putting match to fuse.

"I enjoy opening up fireworks to people," he said. "They have been a part of our history since (John) Adams wrote that the Fourth of July should be celebrated with 'bonfires and illuminations.'"