An explosion in the use of fireworks in the Merrimack Valley — as well as across the country — has put sleepless residents on edge and police on high alert.

In Methuen from March 1 to June 22 there have been 48 fireworks complaints made to the Police Department, compared to just nine during the same period last year, police Chief Joseph Solomon said.

"We have had a lot of calls," said Solomon, adding that there have been no arrests or citations given out. 

By the time officers arrive at a particular location, he explained, the scofflaws have usually fled the scene with their contraband fireworks.

It's not just Methuen. Across the Merrimack Valley, in Boston, and most other large, urban areas, fireworks complaints have risen in the order of 2,000 to 3,000 percent in the last few months.

Some say complaints about the use of high-end pyrotechnics started back in February and has only grown worse as the weather has warmed up and people leave their windows open at night.

The reasons given for the jump in the use of fireworks -- which are illegal in Massachusetts -- range from simple boredom amid the stay-at-home orders due to coronavirus, to the approaching July 4th holiday, during which most civic-sponsored shows have been canceled. Others have opined that the fireworks are somehow connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, although local police say they have seen no indication of that.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much police can do other than educate people on the dangers of fireworks and occasionally arrest or cite people for breaking the law.

Methuen police, for example, sent out a press release last week notifying residents that fireworks are illegal and people with them are subject to arrest, citations and fines.

In Lawrence, where fireworks complaints are up by 3,000% for the first five-and-a-half months of this year compared to the same period last year, arrests have been made, according to police Chief Roy Vasque.

His force implemented somewhat of a crackdown and has arrested four people, summonsed five and given out 10 citations in recent weeks, according to police spokesman Tom Cuddy. The department has also seized two cruiser trunks full of the illegal explosives, including a 5-foot-tall rocket. Vasque said many of the fireworks being confiscated are much more sophisticated than what he's seen in the past.

"It's not the little firecrackers like we had when we were kids," he said. "They are going up 100 feet or more. It must cost good money for people to light these."

Making matters worse is that the seized fireworks have to be collected and disposed of by the Massachusetts State Police bomb squad at considerable expense to taxpayers.

Vasque said the city has done a leaflet drop in neighborhoods printed in both English and Spanish on the subject of the dangers and consequences of fireworks. The flyers provide phone numbers of tip lines. The city has also run public service announcements on Spanish radio imploring people to stop using fireworks.

In Haverhill, Mayor James Fiorentini announced a "zero tolerance" policy this week, mandating that police cite anyone found lighting off fireworks.

Lawrence police reports show a pattern of people lighting off fireworks in the middle of the road with their cars nearby.

"People in vehicles are stopping at different places, setting off the fireworks, and then taking off," Vasque said.

In one June 13 case that led to a charge of unlawful possession of fireworks and disturbing the peace, police saw fireworks going off in the vicinity of Franklin and Cross streets. In front of 160 Franklin St. they found multiple empty containers of fireworks in the road and a man standing nearby, according to a police report. The man admitted owning and having lit off the fireworks, and police saw that he had more in his trunk. When they seized the fireworks, he became verbally abusive, the report states.

Later, at around 11:15 p.m., the same officers returned to the scene where they saw two men lighting more fireworks in front of 160 Franklin St. They approached the men and found one of them to be the same person from the earlier incident. This time however, he denied owning the fireworks, according to the report. Police picked up the empty containers and issued a citation.

Vasque said he and chiefs in other border towns have spoken to officials in New Hampshire, where fireworks are legal, about the problem. Since it's assumed that many Massachusetts residents are crossing the border to buy fireworks they are talking about possibly setting up some kind of sting that would stop people with Massachusetts plates in the parking lots of vendors.

"We are working with the authorities up there," Vasque said. "Massachusetts residents are not supposed to transport fireworks over state lines. We've told them we have a problem. We are bringing it to their attention."  

The late-night use of fireworks has become a nationwide issue, with reports coming from all over the country, especially urban areas of Boston, New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Boston police recorded 1,445 fireworks complaints in the first week of June, compared with just 22 in the same week last year, the Boston Herald reported. Complaints in May were also up by more than 2,300 percent compared with May 2019, according to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

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