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South Dakota's mom-and-pop fireworks stands (and warehouses) forge ahead in tough year

Shipping concerns and drought are squeezing some supply-and-demand lines for fireworks during South Dakota's frenzied sales running up to Independence Day. But sales were up nationally last year, and the parking lots were filled this week.

Amber Cloud, an employee of Brookings Fireworks, rests from re-stocking shelves on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 in a fireworks shop just west of the Minnesota-South Dakota border. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
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"Don't leave.

South Dakota

Without your fireworks."

The three signs headed south on I-29 toward Sioux City, Iowa, beckon travelers to the warehouses, shanties and backs of pick-ups along the state border filled with bottle-rockets, hammer crackers, Black Cats, and old-fashioned plastic bags of multi-colored assorted smoke.


But this year, some of those fireworks didn't ever reach South Dakota — and they might not.

"We're still waiting on a container," said Sally Barber, who owns Zort's Fireworks (buying from Zort, himself in 2003) with her husband in North Sioux City, at about mile marker 2. Their store is busy on a weeknight to open in-state sales. Boxes of Cocoa Palm ($59.99) and The Godfather tower along walls. Bluesy organ plays over speakers while mounted TVs advertise explosion patterns. They got two containers earlier this week, but one is held up somewhere between Kansas City and California.

"Everything is up in the air," says Barber.

Outside in the parking lot, a mom stacks bricks of artillery — Killer Donuts, Flaming Pizzas — into the back of a pickup with Iowa plates, while her kids climb in the cab.

"Not very big compared to last year's," the mom said. "They said they were having a shortage."

An employee of Zort's Fireworks in North Sioux City, S.D., assists buyers haul loot into their truck on Monday, June 28, 2021. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

Fireworks getting political

Fireworks displays aren't necessarily in short supply this year in South Dakota — but one notable absence has driven political chatter. Republican Gov. Kristi Noem appeared again on " Fox and Friends " on Thursday, July 1, to, like the Mariner of Coleridge's tale , remind Americans about the National Park Service's denial of a special use permit to light up pyrotechnics over the four granite faces in the dry Black Hills this Independence Day.


"[President] Biden just decided not to let us have it," Noem said from the Keystone, S.D., restaurant Peggy's Place.

In fact, National Park Service official Herbert Frost enumerated half-a-dozen concerns about fireworks at the national memorial, including drought (which exacerbated a late March fire earlier this year) but also opposition from the region's Native American tribes.

Across the state, inside the Pyroholic Fireworks warehouse outside the city limits of Tea, S.D., near a row of shops buttressed against the interstate with inflatables and flags, manager Paula Kontz stands petting a dog with a star-spangled bandana. She said few residents are talking about the Rushmore fight.

Her store's white walls boast quotes from Ben Franklin to Nelson Mandela in red and blue paint. Asked how she feels about the Parks Service's decision to deny fireworks at Rushmore, she nods.

"If it's about drought, I 100% agree," said Kontz, noting her distaste in "politics." "We can't afford the forest fires."

Drought tampers expectations

A box of assorted smokes rests in a fireworks stand just north of the Iowa-South Dakota border on June 28, 2021. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

As of Thursday, July 1, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln drought monitor found "exceptional drought" — the second-most advanced warning — in portions of 16 counties in South Dakota.


In Tea, the city council only just released residents on July 3 and 4 from a drought-related fireworks prohibition. Towns in the Black Hills , too, such as Spearfish, have mostly banned fireworks. And officials in Fort Pierre — across the river from the Capitol — are warning to watch for grass fires during the few days fireworks are allowed.

In March, even lawmakers and the governor brought into law new restrictions county officials can impose on fireworks during a drought.

"I love fireworks," said Sen. Jessica Castleberry , R-Rapid City, introducing her bill in February. "Setting off fireworks during times of very high to extreme fire danger, however, is not only unwise but extremely dangerous."

And purveyors pay attention to the weather.

"I don't sell them if they burn hot," said Barber, waving her hands. "Nothing kills a product faster than if it comes down hot."

Fireworks boom despite challenges

Fireworks mean income in South Dakota. And during the summer months, the depots that welcome travelers into South Dakota — affixed with inflatable gorillas, cranes, and sometimes street-side hawkers in Statue-of-Liberty hats — come alive, particularly from June 27 through July 5, when sales, which are open by statute to out-of-state residents between May and August , open up to in-state residents.

But, this year, in addition to drought, the mom-and-pop fireworks stands are also facing a supply shortage they say has put something of a crimp on the variety of zingers, monkeys-in-a-barrel, and Millennium Falcon-shaped canisters buyers can pick up.

Some blame a much-publicized workforce shortage in America.

"Nobody wants to work," said Kontz, discussing the logistical logjam running from ship containers on trucks to longshoremen in California coasts to Chinese suppliers. "Welcome to shipping."

A fireworks shanty stands in North Sioux City, S.D., at the outset of in-state sales on Monday, June 28, 2021 (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service).

Inside Zort's, Barber says they ordered early, so they have enough. She wonders if something overseas could be the blame.

"There's a shortage of shipping containers in China," said Barber. "Then they have to wait for a vessel."

Other industry experts point out there could be other reasons a run is on: Americans are buying more of them.

Last year, during the pandemic, the consumer side of the industry saw a near-double jump from $1 billion to $1.9 billion in revenue. (Fireworks injuries are also up .) And once the shelves get full, the whizz-poppers and sparklers are off just as fast.

On Tuesday, June 29, at a Brookings Fireworks warehouse about 100 feet east of the Minnesota border, Amber Cloud stacked mini fire-balls — from bulldozers to Piranhas — inside a shop adjacent to a towering, inflatable blue rocket. Farm fields surrounded her. A single customer slowly pushed a cart.

"Seems like stuff wasn't coming in initially," she said, noting the clientele had picked up recently. "We have our shelves filled now."

She points to a hot seller: cannons that send a blinding pulse of light across a night sky.

"Extra artillery," she said.

Fireworks, in moderation

So the Fourth of July comes to South Dakota, after an explosive year with presidential politics, racial reckoning, and wildfires burning in the west. The opening of the state's lawsuit against the Biden administration quotes the nation's second president , John Adams, who wrote to his wife saying he wanted "illuminations" (along with "shews" and "games") across the continent to commemorate America's independence from Great Britain.

But fireworks are, obviously, a staple for other celebrations, too. Czech Days in Tabor last month saw a lights show. In Custer, they burn a giant beetle in the dead of winter to ward off the pine-killing insect. South Dakotans find all cause for starting them.

On Tuesday night, Mary Williams loaded up fireworks into the back of her Subaru outside a shop in Tea. She'd hit up all three warehouses.

"I buy a lot of Roman candles," said Williams. "Most of the places have the same stuff."

Williams finds a quiet spot on a country road every year since her husband, Andy, died. When it gets quiet, she lights off a rocket, sending sparkles into the dark night, in his memory.

She pauses while considering her unusual, if sweet gesture.

"He sure loved to blow stuff up."

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