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In Chicago, fireworks — and complaints — are exploding

Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management has logged a 736% increase in complaints versus last year. Through Sunday, that was 7,042 complaints versus 842 for the same period in 2019.

People watch as a firework goes off at a Fourth of July block party in the Pilsen neighborhood, Thursday, July 4, 2019, in Chicago.
Fireworks at a Fourth of July block party in Pilsen last year.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

You’re not just hearing things. A lot more fireworks are being set off in Chicago neighborhoods this year — and the Fourth of July is still more than a week away.

Complaints about those loud blasts are up more than 736% compared to 2019, according to city officials.

Through Sunday, the Office of Emergency Management and Communication had fielded 7,042 complaints this year about fireworks. Last year, in the same period, OEMC fielded just 842 calls.

Only four states in the country have banned the use and sale of all consumer-grade fireworks or only allow novelty items like smoke bombs and sparklers. Illinois allows such novelty items, though Chicago has taken it a step further by banning sparklers and bottle rockets too.

Still legal in Chicago are glowworms, smoke bombs and party poppers. Sparklers were outlawed “because they operate at such a high heat level that they can cause very serious burns and can ignite clothing,” said OEMC spokeswoman Mary May. “OEMC encourages residents to be mindful of this along with the safety and welfare of their neighbors and the larger community.”

Violating city law puts people at risk of a $500 fine and incarceration for up to 30 days.

For some people the thrill of igniting a firework outweighs the potential legal woes. Every spring, many journey to neighboring Wisconsin and Indiana to buy pounds of explosives.

But for Denise Badillo, over the last couple months, those thrills have been a nightmare for her 4-year-old daughter, Grace Hernandez, who is living with autism and is sensitive to loud noises. The sudden booms on her street can trigger what is called an “autistic meltdown” that can take hours late into the night to soothe.

“There is a lot of crying, she becomes irritable, she does a lot of running back and forth in our apartment, and if you try to stop her she can start self-harming,” Badillo said. “We sometimes have to wrap her in a blanket, pick her up and swing her back and forth until she calms down.”

Lately, with all the fireworks going off, this has become more and more difficult. More times than not, when Grace has one of these meltdowns it means crying herself to sleep.

“My daughter lives in this world that is not understanding or made for her, but my home is the one place that is made for her,” Badillo, a board member of Latinas United in Love for Autism, said. “You are robbing my daughter of her comfort, her safe space, just for a few seconds of fun — it isn’t right.

Denise Badillo and her daughter Grace Hernandez have struggled dealing with the rise in fireworks this year that has triggered several “autistic meltdowns.”
Denise Badillo and her daughter, Grace Hernandez, have struggled dealing with noisy fireworks this year, which has triggered several “autistic meltdowns.”
Provided.

Sharon Stokes-Parry, president of Montford Point Marines Association, Inc. Chicago Chapter No. 2, said this time of year is also tough on veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other battle-triggered illnesses.

“A lot of fireworks adversely affect our combat vets, and it has been really bad this year,” Stokes-Parry said. “All the sudden booms can trigger that PTSD they are living with, and they protect themselves by insulating themselves.”

This often means sitting indoors and keeping windows closed. They avoid going outside to minimize side effects, Stokes-Parry said.

Still, she said, she understands why people are setting off fireworks, especially now.

After months of self-quarantine during a statewide shut-down order, people are trying to entertain themselves. She just hopes people think of veterans who may live in their neighborhood.

Dimitri Panos, owner of Dynamite Fireworks in nearby Hammond, Indiana, said the majority of his customers have always been Illinois residents, but he is now seeing more of them, and a lot earlier than usual.

“Absolutely our sales are up and it’s certainly due to all the firework shows being canceled” by the pandemic, Panos said. “People still want to have a good time and everyone is deciding to put on their own show.”

Panos wouldn’t say how much more he’s made this year compared to last year, but says he has no qualms selling to folks who live outside Indiana, as long as they’re at least 18 years old.

The rise in fireworks exploding this year isn’t unique to Chicago.

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh said firework complaints increased 2,300% in May compared to May 2019. In California, Pasadena has seen a 400% increase in calls related to fireworks disturbances, and New York City has logged 4,862 complaints in the last two months alone.