Private fireworks sales explode after COVID-19 darkens official NYE celebrations

·4 min read

After a difficult year, and the doldrums of a holiday season spent in social isolation, Albertans are keen to see 2020 go out with a particularly loud bang.

With New Year's Eve on the horizon, retailers say private sales of fireworks have exploded.

"There's a whole bunch of farm families across Alberta shooting fireworks and trying to find some joy and happiness and something different," said John Adria, owner of Uncle John's Fireworks, an Edmonton-based retailer with shops across the province.

"My other friends who are selling fireworks as well, they're seeing this across the country."

Uncle John's Fireworks
Uncle John's Fireworks

Albertans are keen to close out a dark and challenging year with a little light, Adria said.

His shelves, normally full with pyrotechnics, are looking a little bare these days. Rural families have been his biggest customers this season.

"They're remote to begin with and now they're doubly remote. And so this is what they're turning to, fireworks.

"These are people who are trying to follow the guidelines, they're turning inward and they want to do something special for their family in this kind of crazy time that we find ourselves in."

COVID-19 has put a damper on New Year's Eve celebrations across the province. As people ring in 2021, there will be no crowded parties, no chanting masses watching the countdown clock.

Most communities cancelled their annual fireworks displays when more stringent health restrictions came into force.

Other communities got creative.

In Calmar, the show will go on but attendees must watch from the confines of their vehicles. Stony Plain, Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie are also staging drive-in fireworks.

'Doing it for the kids'

Adria, who supplies communities across northern and western Canada with their annual stockpiles of fireworks, said his business took a hit when large annual displays were called off. But individual sales have helped balance out the losses.

People with the proper paperwork and large enough properties are opting to host their own pyrotechnic shows.

Adria said many families are perusing his shelves for the first time.

"We used to do quite a bit of business for people having big parties," he said. "Now it's small stuff. And they're doing it for the kids, for the grandkids.

Many people have talked about staying up until midnight to make sure 2020 actually leaves, he said.

'One thing we don't have change'

Ian Simpson normally hosts a large fireworks party for his neighbours, friends and family. For seven New Year's Eves, his house west of Edmonton filled with a crowd of more than 40 people who eventually migrated out onto the lake at midnight.

Simpson typically spends up to $1,200 on the display to ensure it's a stunner. This year, his children, grandchildren and closest neighbours have been invited to watch from afar.

He hopes it's a safe way for them to mark the new year, even if they can't gather together.

"A little bit of normalcy," he said. "Everything is cancelled. Our kids didn't get to come home for Christmas, we didn't get to see our grandkids.

"Typically we have the whole family together for Christmas. For all our of neighbours and everybody else, it's one thing we don't have change."

The rules around fireworks are different in each municipality. Edmonton bylaws require a discharge permit.

Edmonton Fire Rescue Services is only issuing tier-one permits this year for fireworks launched on private property. Tier-two permits — for any show the public has access to — are not being issued due to limits on gatherings.

Anyone over 18 can apply for a free permit online but must provide a list of all fireworks being used and a detailed site plan. It usually takes at least five business days to process an application.

Spokeswoman Brittany Lewchuk said the department has seen a slight increase in the demand for permits this year but most properties within city limits are too small to meet federal safety guidelines.

Those who shoot fireworks off without permits could face fines between $250 and $500, but Lewchuk said enforcement is rare and department officials are confident people will follow all safety guidelines.

Adria had some advice for first time "shooters." Safety goggles are recommended, and the audience should be at least 100 metres away from the launch site.

As the clock counts down on 2020, he will be restocking his shelves and hoping the forecast continues to call for mild weather.

"There's an old saying in Chinese," he said. "It says look to heaven to see what will be in your rice bowl, to see what you'll eat. And fireworks is the same thing. It's weather dependent.

"When we have warm weather, we have good sales."