Has misuse taken the spark out of fireworks in California?

By  Orange County Register

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Decked out in patriotic red, white and blue, the Fourth of July is a federal holiday commemorating our nation’s declaration of independence from England. But with skyrocketing prices, an upswing in illegal lighting, tougher regulations and myriad other challenges facing the use of pyrotechnics in California, it seems to be getting harder and harder to continue a tradition started by one of our Founding Fathers back in 1776.


Before becoming our second president, John Adams predicted a country reveling with “bonfires and illuminations” in a letter to his wife on the eve of the Second Continental Congress officially telling the tyrant King George III to take a hike. Little did Adams know that his star-spangled suggestion would spark concern and criticism nearly 250 years later.

Inherent worries over safety and noise have always separated fireworks from baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and other relatively benign symbols of Americana. But even as fireworks-related injuries are at historic lows, according to national statistics, anxiety may be at an all-time high in the Golden State.

One reason is where there’s smoke, there’s fire. California’s dry climate is always cause for concern when it comes to fireworks as agencies from the Office of the State Fire Marshal down to the local level warn every year around this time. In the past five years, firefighters have responded to more than 5,000 emergencies caused by fireworks, according to Cal Fire. Last year, alone, incidents numbered over three times above the state average, causing serious injuries and millions of dollars in property damage.

All the precipitation earlier this year has led to California not being in an “extreme” drought for the first time since April 2020, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Positive as that may sound in terms of fire danger, it’s actually a double-edged sword, says the agency that provides fire protection and emergency medical services for unincorporated areas of Orange County.

“Record rainfall has increased fuel loads in our wildlands,” said Brian Fennessy, fire chief of the Orange County Fire Authority. “Because of this, citizens need to be especially cognizant and, as always, abide by all fireworks laws in their community.”

As first responders and others focus on fire dangers before, during and after the Fourth of July season, watchful eyes also are on a class of consumer fireworks that is legal in many parts of the nation, but not California.

Fireworks that explode, shoot into the air or emit sparks beyond 10 feet are not state-approved in the 297 jurisdictions where “safe and sane” fireworks are allowed to be sold and used as early as June 28 and as late as July 5, depending on local ordinances. Huntington Beach, for one, only allows state-approved fireworks to be sold for four days and shot off on just one, the 4th, and doing so outside the hours of noon to 10 p.m. is a misdemeanor that carries a minimum $500 fine. Penalties can be much harsher if the fireworks involved do not bear the seal of the state’s fire marshal’s office on the label.


Problems escalating
Fireworks can be heard exploding as black smoke rises from a home in Ontario after a loud explosion was heard as far away as Riverside on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Fireworks can be heard exploding as black smoke rises from a home in Ontario after a loud explosion was heard as far away as Riverside on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (File photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Seaside or inland, communities up and down the Golden State are seeing a surge in illegal fireworks-related calls, and many first responders will say that the number has escalated since the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to let off steam during confining lockdown conditions is often blamed. One incident that made national news occurred in March 2021 when, while California was still imposing capacity restrictions and distancing requirements, a massive explosion of illegally possessed commercial-grade fireworks killed two and rocked an entire neighborhood in Ontario. The fatal accident also caused at least $3.2 million in damage. Two months later, a tip to police led to thousands of pounds of illegal fireworks being confiscated at a home in South Central L.A. Due to what has since been determined as a bomb squad technician of the Los Angeles Police Department placing too many of the seized explosive devices inside a containment vessel at one time, a huge blast resulted, injuring 17 people and causing major damage. An internal investigation led to a 10-day suspension of the officer.

More recently, a South Los Angeles neighborhood was rattled on an otherwise quiet Sunday night in March with a barrage of illegal aerial fireworks that reportedly lasted around 45 minutes. A witness described the scene as a “war zone,” and despite responses by the Los Angeles police and fire departments, the people responsible haven’t been found.

“These particular events, happening in cities where all fireworks are banned and not even close to the Fourth of July season, are sad and classic reminders of how illegal fireworks and the damage they cause have become a year-round problem in California,” said Dennis Revell, spokesperson for TNT Fireworks, the state’s largest wholesale distributor of safe and sane fireworks. “The massive illegal fireworks display that occurred in March is one of countless examples of how brazen these perpetrators are and how hard it is to catch them in the act.”

One crime-fighting effort is an assembly bill sponsored by TNT Fireworks that, if it becomes law, may better control the flood of what pyros call “the good stuff” by changing the state’s illegal fireworks landscape. Dubbed the California Illegal Fireworks Enforcement Act, AB 1403 is now in the Senate after passing the Assembly in May. Its supporters expressed hope that it will be amended in the coming weeks to put teeth into laws that hold those involved in these illegal fireworks-related cases more responsible. A number of the enforcement provisions in the legislation, as introduced, were temporarily removed from the bill in its first policy committee in order to give the author, all state agencies, the California attorney general and stakeholders time to work to refine and strengthen the provisions.

“Tragically, individuals and businesses involved in these preventable incidents rarely face federal, state or local prosecution or civil lawsuits,” Revell said.

The proponents’ goal is to not only hold the criminals more accountable, but have AB 1403 require the state to provide training on the proper handling and management of seized dangerous illegal fireworks to local fire and law enforcement personnel.

The consensus among authorities is that the best prevention, besides humans obeying the law, is to stop illegal fireworks from ever entering California. Roughly 65% of what’s banned in the state is reportedly linked to a dozen stores in Nevada. Pahrump, a town of 45,000 just east of the California border, is regarded as the chief supplier of illegal fireworks to Southern California.

Law enforcement on this side of the state line received some bad news recently when Red Apple Fireworks, one of Pahrump’s largest pyro stores and whose owner recently shared expansion plans “to ratchet up our growth exponentially,” changed its hours to 24/7 through the Fourth of July. Rival Area 51 Fireworks said it has no plans to match, keeping the doors open only from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Both Pahrump, located about a 90-minute drive from Las Vegas, and Schurz, a town of 721 southeast of Reno on the Walker River Indian Reservation, have spots where shooting off fireworks is legal. Evident by the unceasing aerial assaults above many urban Southern California skies, however, what’s bought in Nevada doesn’t necessarily stay in Nevada.

In fact, Area 51 is singled out in the active fireworks bill authored by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, connecting the Pahrump retailer with two of the aforementioned Southland incidents. Per press reports and legal records, the text reads, Area 51 “was the retailer that sold the massive amounts of federally approved, but California-illegal fireworks found or involved in the massive explosions and busts in Ontario and the city of Los Angeles in 2021.”

In the Los Angeles case, the defendant testified that he made five trips with a rental truck to Area 51 over 10 days that June to purchase massive amounts of illegal fireworks, each time driving back to his L.A. home.

Paying the price in other ways
More than 2,000 California nonprofits will raise funds through fireworks this year. (Photo by David Dickstein)
More than 2,000 California nonprofits will raise funds through fireworks this year. (Photo by David Dickstein)

The amount of green required to celebrate the red, white and blue on America’s 247th birthday is another potential party pooper in communities where fireworks are legal. Observant shoppers will notice that TNT’s 83-second-long Main Squeeze fountain costs 93% more than it did in its debut season only three years ago. At Phantom’s colorful pop-up stands, the 3-minute Illuminati Triangle fountain is $10 less this season, but that’s still a 150% markup from its 2020 price.

Big spenders will be pleased that the most expensive assortments in California are holding steady at $800. Still, that’s a $300 jump from only a few years ago for TNT’s Big Bang and Phantom’s Backyard Bash. Oh, the escalating cost of raw materials, fuel, labor and other factors.

Not all the smoke clouds are dark, however. The ghost of John Adams will take delight in seeing dozens of price rollbacks thanks to a leveling off on the cost of freight that contributed to communal sticker shock over the past couple of years.

“Shipping costs have stabilized and we are passing that savings on to the consumer,” said Linda Hass, Phantom’s West Coast operations manager.

Also preventable are human injuries caused by fireworks, though that didn’t stop more than 10,000 people from getting hurt in 2022, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, which crunches data from the U.S. International Trade Commission and National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Last year’s mark of 2.2 injuries per 100,000 pounds of set-off fireworks may have been a record low for the nation, but that doesn’t mean Independence Day celebrants can enjoy the freedom of being complacent.

“Even if fireworks are legal in your area, they pose a huge risk to life and property,” warns the Orange County Fire Authority. “Know the risks, know the law, and practice firework safety.”
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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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