Enquirer Herald

Fireworks sales sparkle despite economy

It'll take more than blazing wildfires around the country, the economy or restrictive laws to deter the sale of fireworks in York County.

Fireworks vendors in the Fort Mill area say business is up, maybe better than last year, despite a North Carolina law prohibiting the use of larger aerial fireworks. South Carolina is one of 41 states plus Washington, D.C., that allow the sale of and use of some fireworks.

Anything flies in South Carolina, as long as it's consumer-grade - the kind sold by a permitted dealer - and not a bottle rocket. Some states, including North Carolina and Georgia, allow some fireworks, but prohibit rockets, bombs and other aerial or explosive fireworks.

In Scott Tessner's House of Fireworks near the intersection of U.S. 21 and Exit 90 of Interstate 77, there's a section for the "safe and sane," where fountains, sparklers and smoke bombs are the popular fare.

But that section is dwarfed by the rows and stacks with packages clearly packing more heat, where South Carolinians are shopping alongside their restricted neighbors to the north.

On Thursday, Charlotte resident Reilly Jackson, 27, was buying the "Exterminator 24" which boasts "maximum load canister shells." He and his friend have a tradition of shooting fireworks on the Fourth of July.

"As many as we can get," he said.

Last year, that was 150 "if you count each fuse as an item," he said. This year - as a compromise with his friend's wife - they're shooting off 60 on his friend's open country acreage located "in the middle of nowhere" near Fuquay, N.C.

"The further you go out of the city, the more they overlook it," he said.

Business as usual

Tessner hopes to move his entire inventory by Monday, with today and Sunday really amping up the sales. Staying busy is a matter of necessity for the year-round fireworks stands, he said.

"Fireworks is always about the Fourth," he said. "If you don't make it on the Fourth, you're sunk."

That means long nights for the vendors this weekend.

Sharon Huckeba and her neice Stacey Humphrey of Big Daddy's Fireworks Castle said business has been steady throughout the month of June. More customers are trickling in. Until the holiday is over, the doors will stay open late.

"If you've got one customer, you're going to stay open," Huckeba said.

Door prizes, give-aways and buy-one-get-one-free deals have earned them repeat customers.

Tessner doesn't rely on gimmicky promotions to get people in the door. No free hotdogs, he said.

People just want to buy fireworks.

"Thank God for North Carolina people. (People have) gotta have a good time," he said.

Vendors were worried the post-recession economy might impact sales, but that hasn't happened so far, though the weekend will tell.

Hank Baumstark and his son Logan, 7, were loading up a cart with fireworks.

Hank has a party for friends and family each year, and shoots them off his dock on Lake Norman.

He doesn't think the economy's as bad as people say.

"Everytime I go somewhere, people are spending money," he said.

'Perfect storm'

Persistent drought conditions, the holiday weekend, and fireworks are a "recipe for wildfire," forestry officials said in a release.

"That expression, 'you're playing with fire,' is taking on a more literal meaning right now," said Scott Hawkins, South Carolina Foresty Commission public information director, in a release.

"Ground fuels around the state are dry and ready to ignite."

Add to that fireworks, the holiday weekend, and maybe alcohol, and you've got a "perfect storm," Hawkins said.

The city of Rock Hill responded to a dozen small grass fires and a house fire last July Fourth, said Otis Driggers, fire prevention captain for the Rock Hill Fire Department.

"We just hope everyone be conscious of safety and read the label directions and be safe," Driggers said.

The Upstate, including York, Chester and Lancaster counties, is in an "incipient" drought status, the second of five levels of severity according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Wildfires in Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Florida and New Mexico have local officials on heightened alert.

Two Florida Division of Forestry firefighters died this month when their units were burned while suppressing a relatively small wildfire, forestry officials said.

"Literally, just a spark will start a wildfire," Hawkins said.

"The threat is extended in the fact that as an agency, we're a lot smaller than we used to be."

Eleven forestry commission employees and several engines are deployed to Georgia to assist with suppression efforts.

Aging equipment and state budgets cuts of 46 percent since 2008 have taken a toll on the agency's size and firefighting capacity.

The law

Forestry officials urge people to take advantage of public fireworks displays.

York County follows state law for shooting fireworks.

In South Carolina, fireworks can't be sold to anyone younger than16.

The sale and use of small bottle rockets is not allowed.

Some municipalities restrict the use of fireworks within the city limits.

Fireworks are banned in the city limits of Fort Mill, Clover and York, except for toy paper caps, and in Fort Mill, small fireworks such as sparklers.

Tega Cay bans consumer fireworks on city-owned property.