Fireworks enthusiasts flocked to stands along the Parks Highway in Houston on Thursday in anticipation of lighting up Southcentral skies with their own colorful displays on New Year's Eve. The increased buzz was about new ordinance amendments lifting fireworks bans in both Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on New Year's Eve as residents ring in 2011.
In Anchorage, fireworks are allowed within city limits between 9:30 tonight and 1 a.m. New Year's Day. Mat-Su residents can now light theirs between 6 p.m. and 1 a.m., except in Houston, where lighting fireworks is legal year-round on private property.
It'll be the first time in 42 years Valley residents can shoot off fireworks legally, according to the borough. The ban has been in effect in Anchorage for several years.
Houston is still the only Southcentral community where you can buy fireworks, and sales were booming at Gorilla Fireworks, the only fireworks retailer in the area.
The company made two extra orders since hearing that the ban would be lifted, said owner Robert Hall. Hall said he expected sales to be 15 percent to 20 percent higher this year.
"It was last-minute and it just caught us by surprise," he said of the Anchorage Assembly's approval of the change early in December.
The idea to allow fireworks on New Year's Eve had been kicked around a few times before but never passed, so Hall wasn't expecting it this time around either, he said.
"Anchorage has always had this no-fireworks mentality," he said.
Hall said he hadn't made any direct effort to change that mentality. He did not lobby Wasilla or Anchorage lawmakers to allow fireworks, he said. The fireworks stand owner and veteran volunteer firefighter was surprised to hear that the Anchorage Assembly had approved the ordinance amendment by Dick Traini, whom Hall said he'd never met.
"We thought, 'There's no way they're going to vote for it -- it's Anchorage,' " Hall said.
After the law passed, the first thing Hall said was, "God bless Anchorage, they finally figured it out."
Then there was a moment of panic.
"All of a sudden it was like, whoa, we need more," he said.
Hall put in an order for more fireworks the day after the ordinance passed, he said. As business picked up, fears at Gorilla increased that they would run out. The day after Christmas, customers were lined up at the stands and the fireworks were selling fast, Hall said.
So he bought more.
"It's maybe too much," Hall said. "We'll see."
The fireworks usually come by ship from China, Hall said. The last shipment arrived Thursday afternoon from the Lower 48 on a truck that drove straight through Canada.
Hall checked the order and tried to keep up with phone calls as a phone rang constantly in the background.
Hall said most people had the same question: How late are you open?
The answer: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. today.
As Hall and his employees scrambled to keep up, Southcentral residents were spending money -- some of them shelling out hundreds of dollars a pop -- at the stands.
The Gorilla Fireworks stands were packed with people young and old ogling the wide variety of mortars, rockets, sparklers and crackers. Cheerful music played on small speakers and salespeople pulled fireworks off the shelves and described what folks could expect from the many different products.
A gorilla mascot danced a few yards off the highway, and attendants in orange vests showed drivers where to park in the bustling lot.
"It's been pretty busy," said Samantha Parsons, who manages one of the stands. "We're just trying to keep up with it. The last two days have been the biggest days."
Mortars and "show-in-a-box" fireworks were selling well, Parsons said.
Houston volunteer firemen stood in the chilly air and kept their eyes on each stand, instructing people to extinguish cigarettes within 30 feet of the stands and making sure no one lit fireworks nearby.
Some customers hauled off plastic bags filled with assorted fireworks, while others lugged away large tubs and boxes filled to the top.
Wasilla resident Jim Ressler leafed through hundreds, fifties and twenties, then dropped more than $500 on a massive pile of firecrackers, mortars and several other poppers, whizzers and sparklers. Ressler was supplying fireworks for a party of 15 to 20 people and he planned to recoup some of the cost from them, he said with a laugh.
"Destruction is the function," said Derek Tumbleson, one of the several friends Ressler brought with him to carry the huge load.
Tumbleson said he was glad the laws had changed but it wouldn't change how his group of friends celebrated New Year's Eve.
"We've been doing it for years anyway," he said. "We live so far out in the woods, it was good to go."
The Augafa family made the trip up from Anchorage.
"It'll be interesting," said Kay Augafa. "It's hard sometimes to drive downtown and deal with the traffic to see the (city's) fireworks show."
"I think it's safe if you can keep the kids supervised," she said, standing next to her teenaged son, who held a massive box of assorted fireworks under his arm. "And the adults, well, they can be like kids too, sometimes."
Gorilla Fireworks salespeople get a safety briefing on the many different hazards of their products, Parsons said. Firework safety information can be found at both the Anchorage Fire Department website and the site for the Mat-Su Borough.
Ressler joked at one point about holding a Roman candle in his hand.
"I can't sell those to you if you say that," Parsons said, to which Ressler said he was "just kidding."
Gorilla Fireworks is concerned about safety and they hope customers use the fireworks responsibly, Hall said. But they didn't seem to be losing sleep over safety issues as much as they were from the long hours at the stands this month.
Hall said he was working until 2 a.m. and getting up three or four hours later.
"It's just a fun time, the energy, the excitement," he said. "It's hard to get tired."