illicit fireworks stockpile
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In Santa Cruz County, Illegal Fireworks Are Booming

With the Fourth of July looming and wildfire risk high, what can be done?

With the Fourth of July looming and wildfire risk high, what can be done?

When news agencies throughout the Central Coast reported that Santa Cruz County law enforcement officers had seized more than 1,100 pounds of illegal fireworks from a home on the outskirts of Watsonville last month, many residents of the county’s southernmost city were skeptical that the substantial bust had made a dent in the fireworks that go off on a daily basis.

“There’s a bunch going off tonight that they didn’t find,” one person wrote on Facebook in response to an article.

The booming explosions and pretty aerial displays that typically ring in celebratory moments and bring smiles to onlookers’ faces, have become a noisy plague on South County residents who are calling on city government to step up its enforcement of illegal fireworks and possibly outlaw the sale of the “safe-and-sane” variety.

City officials say that this year the thundering pyrotechnics have started earlier and are being fired up with more frequency—sometimes even brazenly during the middle of the day—but they have no plans to halt the sale of legal fireworks within city limits. Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra says that their removal would do little to curb the illegal fireworks that are putting annoyed residents on edge, and are becoming more prevalent. 

“There are a handful of issues that I say, ‘I wish I could have a magic wand to fix the issue,’ and this is definitely one of them,” Dutra says.

The sale of “safe-and-sane” fireworks, those that do not explode or leave the ground when ignited, serves as a major fundraiser for more than 20 local nonprofits and youth sports teams in Watsonville, the lone city in Santa Cruz County that allows their sale. Removing that annual income, Dutra says, would be a devastating financial blow for many of those organizations.

The Watsonville City Council has previously discussed how it could crack down on illegal fireworks, but those talks have usually turned ugly. That’s because those debates have wrongly pitted the nonprofits running the fireworks booths against the residents that are fed up with the racket, says former City Councilwoman Trina Coffman-Gomez.

Coffman-Gomez, who termed out of office last year, says that there needs to be more education about the issue so that residents can ban together to go after the illegal fireworks, rather than try to eliminate the “safe-and-sane” ones. She highlights that many residents do not know that the money the city makes on sales tax from the firework booths pays for overtime costs accumulated by the Watsonville police and fire departments on the Fourth of July.

In her last year in office, Coffman-Gomez, after an annual report on “safe-and-sane” fireworks, passed a motion to further discuss the item. But the city “dropped the ball,” she says, and the item has yet to return to the City Council. Mayor Dutra says there are no plans to make changes to the city’s ordinance on fireworks this year.

The city, for its part, has tried to cut back on illegal fireworks by hosting an annual fireworks show at the airport, but even with that event in place, Watsonville’s skies still ignite on Independence Day and the weeks leading up to it.

Blast Radius

Watsonville Police Department Sgt. Bryan Fuentez agreed with Dutra and Coffman-Gomez that banning all fireworks would not reduce the use of illegal ones. Fuentez lives in another part of the county in which all fireworks are outlawed, and says he still hears illegal fireworks nearly every night. The issue, he says, even extends beyond the county line.

“No matter where you go, you talk to somebody in Gilroy, someone in Hollister, someone in Morgan Hill, they’re all going to say the same thing: ‘It’s like a war zone out here,’” he says. “That’s everyone’s line, but it’s true. I saw things last year that I never would have seen previously. It was pretty spectacular … but when they’re going off at all hours of the night and then several days before, it’s like, ‘enough already.’”

Fuentez says that WPD—as it does every year—will increase the number of officers available to respond to illegal fireworks calls in the week leading up to the Fourth of July, which this year lands on a Sunday. The Watsonville Fire Department on July 4 will also cruise around the city handing out citations of up to $1,000 per violation.

Not far away, in Capitola—the only other city in the county that allows “safe-and-sane” fireworks on private property—Chief of Police Terry McManus says that his department will also increase the number of officers available to respond to reports of illegal fireworks starting on the Friday before the holiday. McManus did not have data readily available on whether calls for illegal fireworks had risen since last year, but he did say that his officers take the reports seriously.

“The illegal fireworks … are a complete nuisance,” McManus says. “Talking to Mayor [Yvette] Brooks, she’s concerned about the impact of those illegal fireworks on families, on disturbing individuals in their homes and the effect they have on animals and the environment.”

Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter General Manager Melanie Sobel says the illegal fireworks often make pets panic and run away from their homes. Sometimes, she adds, they hurt themselves in their frantic dash to find shelter from the booms.

“July 4, the week before and the week after, shelters, in general, are inundated with pets,” she says.

But Sobel says that she has also seen an uptick in the number of illegal fireworks being set off throughout the year in Santa Cruz. Those explosions are also getting closer to the Rodriguez Street shelter in Live Oak, she says, as people will often set off illegal fireworks in the school behind that location.

“These poor shelter animals have to deal with this fear and anxiety without an owner to comfort them,” she says.

Bang-Up Job

Last month’s massive illegal fireworks bust by Santa Cruz County’s Auto Theft Reductions Enforcement (SCARE) Task Force was not the result of a lengthy investigation or a tip from a resident. Fuentez says that, to the best of his knowledge, the SCARE team stumbled upon that monstrous pile of fireworks by coincidence—they were investigating that property for a different reason.

“That’s really how we get the big captures,” Fuentez says. “When we’re doing something else and we see all this stuff. ”

Everyday enforcement of illegal fireworks is a much different and more difficult task. Typically, when a resident calls in to report that illegal fireworks are being set off, they do not have an exact location of where it was fired from, Fuentez says. The power of some large fireworks will make it feel as if they exploded just a few feet from their home, he adds.

“But those fireworks are probably several blocks away,” he says.

McManus adds that even if one of his officers is dispatched to an exact address of where the fireworks were allegedly set off, they are put in the tough situation of determining if there’s enough probable cause to knock on a resident’s door. Capitola and Watsonville police usually only hand out a fine if they catch someone with the lit match in hand.

“We need to always respect the individual’s rights before we do some investigative follow up [on a report] that might have limited information,” McManus says.

Coffman-Gomez says Watsonville needs to move past that “whack-a-mole” policing of illegal fireworks, and look at what other cities are doing to successfully silence the aerial explosions.

Some communities, such as nearby Seaside, have hiked the fines for illegal fireworks, and used drones to catch perpetrators in the act on the Fourth of July. Others, such as Pacifica, Redwood City, Sacramento and San Jose, are now turning to a “social host” ordinance, which empowers law enforcement to hand tenants and property owners hefty fines for illegal fireworks set off on their land, regardless of whether they lit the match. But ordinances only do so much, and the root of the issue, says Coffman-Gomez, is the unchecked influx of illegal fireworks from outside of California.

“We’ve tried a sundry of different options [to stop illegal fireworks], but the true discussion that needs to happen is, legislatively, what can we do to better criminalize this as a problem that we have here chronically,” she says.

She’s not the only one urging state lawmakers and law enforcement officials to take action on illegal fireworks. A Los Angeles County Supervisor last month called on the feds to address the issue ahead of the Fourth of July. Her plea to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and U.S. Customs and Border Protection came two months after an illegal stockpile of fireworks exploded in a city just east of Los Angeles, killing two men and causing $3.2 million in damage.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s annual fireworks report from 2019—the latest report available, at least 12 people died while using fireworks that year, and there were an estimated 10,000 injuries associated with fireworks, including roughly 7,300 between June 21 and July 21.

Dry County

For many, the Fourth of July will be the first time they gather with friends and family since the start of the pandemic, and Chief McManus says he’s worried that illegal fireworks use could skyrocket as a result. In addition, there are no local professional fireworks shows scheduled for the Fourth of July, so pyrotechnic enthusiasts might take matters into their own hands.

“Is there likely to be an even larger July 4 type of celebratory activity because of the joy of getting out of this Covid period? There probably is,” McManus says. “We have to factor that in, too.”

That is troubling, says Mayor Dutra, because of the current drought-like conditions throughout Santa Cruz County and the greater state of California. Local Cal Fire officials have said this fire season could be “very active” because of those dry conditions.

“We really need to consider the state of our environment right now,” Dutra says.

Sobel says that ordinances and legislation are a good step to cut down on illegal fireworks, but emphasizes that education is also key. She says that many people who are setting off these fireworks are not aware of the negative effects their actions have.“It’s educating the people that maybe this isn’t the best way to recreate and spend my time because I’m upsetting veterans, I’m keeping people up at night and I’m terrifying animals as well,” she says. “It’s kind of like spay and neuter. Nobody got their animals spayed and neutered 30 or 40 years ago, and then it became part of the vernacular. [Bob Barker] on The Price Is Right always said, ‘Spay and neuter your pets.’ People didn’t even know what spayed and neutered was, and now people know what it is … it takes time.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jean Brocklebank

    June 9, 2021 at 8:37 pm

    Thank you TONY NUÑEZ for an excellent, extensive summary of the huge problems of fireworks in Santa Cruz County. Especially illuminating is what we have said all along — hosting an annual fireworks show at the Watsonville airport did not stop the use of illegal fireworks on the 4th and the weeks leading up to it.

    As for safe and sane fireworks, these can be broken down and contents reconstituted into larger, harmful fireworks. They also contain harmful chemicals and the residual detritus gets washed into the storm drains and thence into the ocean. There must be a better way for non-profits to raise funds than with fireworks.

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