With social distancing regulations yielding no town-organized fireworks shows, local authorities expect to work extra hard this July Fourth to defuse illegal ones.
In Wellfleet and Truro, particularly, the police and fire depts. are concerned about public safety risks that arise from amateur displays that are popular. “We can’t control if people have private displays, but we are staffing extra people through the weekend,” said Truro Fire Chief Tim Collins of his squad’s holiday plans. That staffing is “not just for fireworks, but for the usual increased call volume,” he added.
The chief said that he is holding out hope for blank skies on Independence Day. Collins’s hope may be unrealized, however.
Fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts, so most people planning a makeshift display have to buy them out of state. We don’t know how many rockets have been brought across state lines to the Outer Cape, but Atomic Fireworks, a retailer in Seabrook, N.H., that is popular with Massachusetts customers, has seen a 20- to 30-percent increase in sales this year compared to last, according to employee Steve Carbone.
“Because of the Fourth being on a Saturday, and everybody being cooped up, we have definitely seen a major increase,” he said. He expects that number to skyrocket right up until July 5.
One family in Truro that has a legacy of setting off illegal fireworks on the Fourth has no plans of breaking their tradition this year. “Ever since I can remember, there has been a big communal fireworks pile in the garage,” said a member of the family, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of potential legal liability.
Through the years, that Truro family has seen its fair share of scares. One memorable story happened on a July 4 when the family held a beach bonfire before the fireworks. A set of approaching headlights spooked someone in the family into thinking it was the police.
Instead of burying the fireworks or shoving them up their sleeves (the family protocol), one person threw a 100 pack into the bonfire. “The fire turned white for a second,” said the source, “and then shot off straight into the sky. It looked like it was daytime.”
Luckily, nobody was injured.
In Wellfleet, residents have not seen organized fireworks in July since 2009, when the town suspended the annual tradition due to budget cuts. In previous years, the town had mounted a July Fourth fireworks display, launched from Indian Neck and viewed from all around the harbor.
In 2004, the show drew unexpected attention when a shell prematurely ignited and sent 2,500 other shells blasting in every direction.
“It was the grand finale of all finales,” said Wellfleet Town Moderator Dan Silverman, who was the deputy fire chief at the time. “Thankfully, these were professionals who knew that, when something goes wrong, run like hell.”
No one was injured, but firefighters spent most of the day putting out brush fires that resulted from the spewing pyrotechnics.
The event was rescheduled for a week later and went off without a hitch. After a three-year budget-driven hiatus, in 2013, the town held a one-off fireworks display for Labor Day. Since then, residents began to rely on fireworks outlaws for their fix.
Last year marked the finale of a long-running illegal display at Newcomb Hollow Beach, which was shut down by the police before it could begin. The event appeared to be an open secret, with over 100 people attending for the few years it took place.
“This year, we don’t really expect any more calls than normal,” said Wellfleet Police Chief Mike Hurley.
The department received seven calls in the week of July Fourth last year, and three on the day itself.
Hurley said he is mindful of people coming from out of state who might not be aware of Massachusetts fireworks laws, but with virtually every road sign from Provincetown to Boston reading “fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts,” he has little sympathy for those who miss the memo.
On the chance that an officer does confront people who are shooting off fireworks illegally, that officer has some discretion as to how to handle the situation.
Hurley said that most confrontations result in the police just confiscating the fireworks, adding, “Folks are usually cooperative.”