To celebrate the New Year, Icelanders buy hundreds of tonnes of fireworks and shoot them off in a completely haphazard fashion. As you can imagine, this makes for one hell of a dazzling fireworks show.
In fact, Kiefer Sutherland—who once took down a Christmas tree in a Reykjavík hotel lobby—claims that he has never witnessed a more extraordinary fireworks display than when he was in Iceland on New Years.
But who knows how many fireworks displays he’s witnessed or remembers witnessing, and the numbers speak for themselves. Icelanders reportedly set off 500 tonnes of fireworks last year, which is equivalent to almost two kilos of TNT per person.
While the fireworks show has become somewhat renowned, it is perhaps a lesser-known fact outside of Iceland that the country’s volunteer rescue team ICE-SAR is behind the bulk of these fireworks sales.
For thirty some odd years, ICE-SAR has been importing fireworks primarily from China, and selling them during the allotted four day window, between December 28 and December 31, to fund their operations.
While the teams are made up of volunteers, the rescues can be expensive and the fireworks sales have become critical to their operations. “For many rescue teams, fireworks sales make up ninety percent of the budget,” ICE-SAR representative Jón Ingi says. “So it’s very important.”
The organisation has 100 rescue teams and 40 accident prevention teams around the island, and it gets roughly 14.000 callouts per year, which ICE-SAR representative Jón Ingi Sigvaldason says translates to an annual 640.000 man-hours of work.
“We get all kinds of calls,” he says, “from rescuing people in snow storms to looking for people who are reported missing—such as patients with Alzheimer’s—which happens more often than people know.”
Every year, the rescue team is also sent to look for tourists who venture off into Iceland’s often-unforgiving nature without being properly equipped. Last month, there was the case of a Swedish photographer who lost his way on a glacier. In total, five hundred people from the rescue team participated in his search, ultimately finding him in a crevasse, regrettably dead.
While purchasing fireworks from ICE-SAR is definitely supporting a good cause, you can also imagine that it results in a ton of pollution and a number of accidents too. If you mix hundreds of thousands of inebriated Icelanders with hundreds of tonnes of fireworks, it’s bound to happen.
To this end, Jón Ingi says the organisation does its best to prevent accidents. “We spend a lot of money trying to prevent accidents,” he says, “giving out 150.000 safety glasses every year.”
In any case, the show will go on and it will be spectacular, so you might as well enjoy it and support ICE-SAR while you’re at it. Just remember to be careful and don’t forget to wear your safety glasses because as great as it is, it will never be worth losing an eye!