'Noise and color': Chattanooga area fireworks sellers prepare for busy Independence Day

A jampacked cacophony of color hits customers as they enter Tee's Fireworks on Highway 127 in Signal Mountain.

The store is crammed into a vintage shuttle bus, and the seats have been replaced with displays that show a variety of pyrotechnic merchandise. Their vibrant packaging is emblazoned with names like the Battle Beast, Walkin' Dead, Little Big Show and Diablo.

Outside, a pair of large, inflatable eagles and a duo of American flags flank the entrance of the spangled vehicle, which has been painted white and is speckled with red and blue stars.

With the Fourth of July just a week away, artillery shells are a popular item at Tee's, particularly one called the Black Mamba.

"It shakes the ground when it comes out of the shell and then it just lights up the sky," Janie Hudson, whose family has operated the stand for 48 years, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "So it's noise and color."

Fireworks sellers across Southeast Tennessee are getting ready for one of their busiest seasons of the year, and as the nation's birthday approaches, law enforcement agencies and firefighters are reminding people to be aware of their local rules if they decide to organize their own fireworks display.

Hamilton County permits the safe discharge of fireworks in unincorporated areas, but the sheriff's office said people who live in one of the county's municipalities should check with their local City Hall to see if fireworks are allowed. The cities of East Ridge and Lakesite, for example, prohibit the use of fireworks within their limits. There are similar bans in Soddy-Daisy and Red Bank.

In Chattanooga, it is unlawful to set off fireworks after 11:30 p.m.

Chattanooga Fire Department spokeswoman Lindsey Rogers told the Times Free Press by email that fire personnel respond to fireworks-related calls on the Fourth of July every year.

"That includes fire and personal injury," she said.

How can you be safe while shooting off fireworks on Independence Day? Here are some suggestions from the Chattanooga Fire Department:

— Never allow young children to handle fireworks.— Older children should use them only under close adult supervision.— Never use fireworks while impaired by drugs or alcohol.— Anyone using fireworks or standing nearby should wear protective eyewear.— Never hold lighted fireworks in your hands.— Never light them indoors.— Only use them away from people, houses and flammable material.— Never point or throw fireworks at another person.— Only light one device at a time and maintain a safe distance after lighting.— Never ignite devices in a container.— Do not try to re-light or handle malfunctioning fireworks.— Soak both spent and unused fireworks in water for a few hours before discarding.— Keep a bucket of water nearby to fully extinguish fireworks that don’t go off or in case of fire.— Never use illegal fireworks.

The department strongly recommended residents leave fireworks to the professionals, she said, but if people choose to use them, they should follow several safety tips. Those include wearing protective eyewear, only lighting one device at a time, never igniting a device in a container and soaking spent or unused fireworks in water for a few hours before discarding.

To avoid risk of fire, fireworks should only be ignited on a smooth, flat surface outdoors and away from dry leaves or flammable materials. Any dry grass underneath a ground display should be wet down.

In Guild, Tennessee, mortars tend to be a popular item at Big Daddy's Fireworks at 10213 TN-156. Encased in a sleeve, the shells can be shot off individually. They also tend to have the most spectacular payoff.

"Mortars are the biggest," Lorena McFalls, the business's incoming manager, told the Times Free Press by phone on Thursday. "That's the biggest boom and the biggest color break."

Although Independence Day is still about a week away, customers have already started buying fireworks, McFalls said. Memorial Day, New Year's Eve and the Fourth of July are reliably the store's busiest times of the year.

"We have great stock, we haven't struggled to get it in and we just have a lot of people doing big shows and getting together and spending a few thousand on just one gathering," McFalls said.

Although many businesses struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, the outbreak had the opposite effect on Big Daddy's Fireworks.

"The pandemic made us more successful," McFalls said. "I know that sounds crazy."

She attributed that surprise success to the financial assistance people received over the past couple of years from the federal government, which included stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits.

"People were spending more money than they've ever," McFalls said. "We shut our doors at noon on the Fourth of July (last year and the year before). We had nothing to sell in this big old store."

Hudson said she's noticed a similar trend at Tee's Fireworks. The stand has seen an increase in business over the past couple of years.

"I think they're celebrating life and being able to get out and be thankful that I guess they're still alive," she said.

The fireworks stand Hudson runs with her family is named in honor of her mother, who went by the nickname Tee. Their fireworks business started out in a pool hall but then transitioned to a 1956 model school bus before finally shifting to their current location, where they've now been for about 20 years.

Five years ago, the store started organizing a drawing through which people could win a free fireworks package called the Godfather. That's an $800 package in most places, Hudson said. Customers can drop off a ticket at the stand, and at 7 p.m. on July 4, Tee's Fireworks draws a name out of a bucket.

This year, McFalls said Big Daddy's Fireworks has a large stockpile of merchandise, and with Independence Day being on a Monday, she anticipates most people will have a three-day weekend, giving them more time to organize their own personal display.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.