Milwaukee's Lakefront Fireworks

Fireworks Have Been Flying in Milwaukee for Weeks. Here’s Why.

Fireworks complaints are way up in Milwaukee and nationwide.

Jon Rosado, of Milwaukee, says he buys fireworks for Independence Day with his family “when we can afford ‘em.” On the afternoon of Saturday, June 27, Rosado bought a couple roman candles and other firecrackers for the girls in his family at American Fireworks in Big Bend.

“We want the kids to enjoy having the fireworks … You want to have something for your kids,” Rosado says, considering they won’t have the normal Independence Day fireworks in southeastern Wisconsin since they’ve been canceled by-and-large due to COVID-19 precautions.

But not everyone wants Rosado’s family, or others, to fire off those technically illegal rockets. (Possession of, the sale of and the setting off of fireworks anywhere in Milwaukee County could land you a fine of up to $1,000 per offense.)

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“I don’t like the noise. I don’t like the damage they can do … They’re dangerous,” says Brook Love, a native Milwaukeean, noting the countless stories of mismanaged fireworks causing vehicle fires, property damage and the (albeit rare) deaths. Just last week, a porch caught on fire in Racine after a firework was set off by someone else in the neighborhood. Last year, three employees contracted for a fireworks show in Waukesha were injured after bombshells exploded while on the ground.

A 2006 City of Milwaukee task force determined “that the prevalence of illegal fireworks in the City creates substantial public health and safety risks, and at great expense to public resources,” reinforcing local leaders’ stand against the legality of the entertaining explosives known to freak out pets and people alike, particularly some veterans who the Fourth of July holiday is intended to celebrate. In 2016, a combat veteran who suffers from PTSD in Waukesha fired his rifle into the air after the blasts made him think he was back in Afghanistan; the 30-year-old was found taking cover underneath his truck minutes later.

“Fireworks pose a higher risk of death than any other consumer product,” Alderman Michael Murphy stated on June 17, citing the National Fire Protection Association.

Still, the sale of fireworks remains legal all around Milwaukee and throughout the state. Business is booming (no pun intended) at places like Phantom Fireworks in Caledonia, 2.5 miles south of the county line.

“Extremely higher demand. Extremely high,” says Phantom Manager Connery Ray. It’s been like that since early June, more than a month after most major municipal fireworks shows were canceled, giving enough time for people to realize if they wanted to see explosions in the sky, they were going to have to do it themselves.

Ray, like Love, thinks the spiking demand is strictly because of “that void” anticipated by the canceled displays and people wanting to have some summer normalcy amid a pandemic.

Others think the increase might be somehow connected to the ongoing protests decrying racism and police violence following the death of George Floyd. WISN 12 reported that Common Council President Cavalier Johnson says there is a link between the two, ­­but there hasn’t been an established connection there yet. Creating that link has sparked outrage in some. Love posted in a Facebook group: “Please tell me how they came to that conclusion!”

There may never be a full explanation of what’s causing the increase in reports of fireworks in the city.

Complaints about illegal fireworks are way up in the city and elsewhere. There’s little question about that.

In the city, complaints are up by about 600% with little increase in complaints in the surrounding municipalities, according to media reports. Similar reports have come out of Chicago and Boston, where complaints are up 736% and 2300% respectively. In New York City, there have been 12,582 calls to the 311 line between June 1 and June 23 regarding illegal fireworks. In 2019, just 17 calls were made during the same timeframe.

Fireworks have been used as weapons and distractions against law enforcement by a minority of protesters. And the oft-chanted concept of “No justice! No peace!” has been linked to the ongoing nightly disturbances.

But “boredom” may also be playing a role, as The Guardian reported.

In New York, some NYFD firefighters came under an internal investigation for lighting off fireworks in the city. And in mid-June, NYPD officers in riot gear showed up in Brooklyn, reportedly to quell excessive use of fireworks.

There’s no way of knowing truly how often fireworks are actually being used in Milwaukee and why they’re being set off. There’s no way to track the exact number of illegal fireworks launched every year — nobody is watching the skies, counting every bang in the county. Plus, people are stuck at home with so many bars and restaurants closed, and events canceled. They’ve got the free time to phone in complaints.

A New York Times study analyzing research microphones tucked along city streets showed that background noise has fallen dramatically in the Big Apple during the COVID-19 pandemic due to reduced vehicular and foot traffic. The same reduction in white noise is likely true in other cities, including MKE. As such, the loud bangs of bombs bursting in air or the whizzes of bottle rockets are going to stand out more against silent skylines.

Love is upset whenever she hears someone blame Black Lives Matter demonstrators, with whom she has marched, for the late-night disturbances. “I don’t think the protests have anything to do with it,” she says. 

Joe Brats, of Muskego, walked out of American Fireworks on Saturday with a cart loaded with fireworks. He said they were the same amount he buys every year. COVID hasn’t slowed him down. He’s going to fire some fireworks regardless of protests and COVID.

It’s nothing new, he says. “It’s the same party.”

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Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan