As Victoria Day approached this year, John Hilborn turned to his wife and joked that a new season had begun: “The official start of fireworks every weekend until Labour Day.”
As recently as Tuesday night he could hear fireworks going off in his neighbourhood in Kitchener, Ont.; sometimes they go off well after 11 p.m.
“I’m not against fireworks by any stretch of the imagination,” says Mr. Hilborn, a web developer. He’s always enjoyed professional fireworks displays, the kind that have been cancelled or drastically reduced during the pandemic. “But when it’s just some dude in his backyard and it’s like, bang, and then two minutes go by and there’s another bang, that’s not impressive. You’re just a nuisance.”
The popping sound of fireworks exploding has become the unofficial soundtrack of the pandemic in many cities across Canada. They’re hard to ignore – fireworks usually create a sound in the 150- to 175-decibel range. (A clap of thunder, by comparison, is between 100 and 120 decibels. Gunshots are usually 150 to 175 decibels.)
The nightly fusillade has left frazzled residents at their wits’ end and complaints are, well, skyrocketing. Toronto recorded more than 120 grievances so far this year, compared with only 36 for all of 2020.
But fireworks aren’t just a noisy nuisance, they’re also dangerous.
Last week, 24-year-old Matiss Kivlenieks, an NHL goaltender for the Columbus Blue Jackets, died when he was struck in the chest by an errant firework during a Fourth of July celebration in Michigan. A man in Indiana also died after being struck by a firework that weekend.
More common than fatalities, but also perilous, is property damage. Between 2010 and 2019, fireworks caused an average of 26 fires each year in Ontario, according to data from the Office of the Fire Marshal. Those fires resulted in an average of more than $600,000 a year in property damage.
The Canadian Fireworks Association, an industry group, has launched a public awareness campaign in the hopes of keeping everyone on their best behaviour. But without a clear understanding of the rules in municipalities across the country, the barrage of fireworks is unlikely to end any time soon, experts say.
People are setting off fireworks throughout the year, not just on holidays, and in seemingly every corner of the city, says Carleton Grant, Toronto’s executive director of municipal licensing and standards, the division that enforces the city’s bylaws.
“It’s happening in a number of parks, but it’s also happening across the entire city. It’s happening in parking lots, on streets, in people’s backyards. It’s happening everywhere,” he says.
More public awareness of the rules might reduce the problem, Mr. Grant says. Earlier this year, the city conducted an online survey that found that of the more than 6,000 participants, 40 to 45 per cent of respondents were unaware of Toronto’s rules about when or where fireworks can be used, and another 26 per cent were only somewhat aware.
Rules differ across municipalities. In Toronto, for example, Victoria Day and Canada Day are the only occasions on which people can set off fireworks on their own property. Any other date or location requires a permit for the city’s fire department.
Fines can be levied, but it’s almost impossible for bylaw officers to track down people in time.
“We’re not immediate responders,” Mr. Grant says.
Mr. Hilborn, in Kitchener, has never called the police because he doesn’t want to waste their time.
“By the time they get there, everyone will be long gone,” he says.
The increased usage of fireworks during the pandemic, and the frustration it causes many people, prompted the Canadian Fireworks Association’s Be A Good Neighbour campaign, which urges people to know their local bylaws, learn how to set up and dispose of fireworks safely, and inform neighbours ahead of time, among other issues.
“Respect is very key,” says Aleem Kanji, a spokesperson for the association.
Tom Jacobs, owner of Rocket Fireworks, a Toronto-based company that operates multiple retail locations across Ontario, estimates that sales are up 35 per cent industrywide so far this year compared with the same period in 2019.
Mr. Jacobs attributes the rise in popularity to pandemic-induced boredom.
“Once you exhaust Netflix there’s not much to do and people need an outlet, and the fireworks industry has benefited from that,” he says.
Meghan Prevost has been hearing fireworks going off every few weeks from her home in Calgary. The noise is incredibly stressful for her dog, Kona.
“You can’t console her. She just doesn’t know what to do,” says Ms. Prevost, who works in communications at the University of Calgary. “I’ve tried so many things. You wrap them tightly in a blanket or you block their ears. Nothing helps.”
The nuisance and danger posed by fireworks prompted Vancouver to ban the sale and use of consumer fireworks last year.
Many people with PTSD, including Canadian veterans and refugees from conflict zones, as well as parents of children with severe autism, voiced their support for the ban, says Pete Fry, the councillor who first proposed the ban.
“If somebody was to come to us today and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this really great idea for rocket-propelled pyrotechnics that will have super-heated heavy metals and potential to blow things up and light houses on fire and scare wildlife and scare vets with PTSD,’ and really all these things, we would never in a million years license something like that,” he says.
But obviously lots of people enjoy fireworks.
One reason why so many people are lighting them off lately could be because the pandemic has prevented us from gathering together for the sort of large, public fireworks displays conducted by professionals, Toronto’s Mr. Grant says.
“Because those have been cancelled, people are doing their own thing, and that’s just not good,” he says.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.