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How to stay safe and sane on July 4th

Orange County Register logo Orange County Register 7/1/2022 Hunter Lee, The Orange County Register
TNT Fireworks stand operator Pete Vranes, right, speaks with customers Ryan Suggs, left, and his friend Rikki Tambunan, center, as they look over a selection of “safe and sane” fireworks in Fontana Wednesday, June 29, 2022. © Will Lester/The Orange County Register/TNS TNT Fireworks stand operator Pete Vranes, right, speaks with customers Ryan Suggs, left, and his friend Rikki Tambunan, center, as they look over a selection of “safe and sane” fireworks in Fontana Wednesday, June 29, 2022.

The death of an 8-year-old boy at a July 4th block party in San Bernardino, a blast that ravaged an Ontario neighborhood and the recent seizure of 14,000 pounds of illegal fireworks at an Azusa home show how quickly the holiday can turn destructive and dangerous.

A buyback program is being held Saturday, July 2 in Mission Hills to try to minimize the amount of illegal fireworks in Los Angeles County, Last year, more than 500 pounds of fireworks were swapped for gift cards.

Thousands of people spend the holiday in emergency rooms every year, and the exploding skies leading up to July 4th can be dreadful for pets. Last week, Eva Corlew’s 5-year-old Great Dane, Adrian, panicked over the threatening blasts in their Westminster neighborhood, dashed into the street and was hit by a car.

“I love the Fourth of July,” Corlew said, “but now every time I hear fireworks it makes me angry … that’s what caused her to run off and get killed.”

This year, extreme drought conditions have authorities especially concerned. An errant sparkler, thrown into brush, can lead to disaster.

“Someone accidentally catching a tree on fire with a firework can be a misdemeanor,” said Riverside Police Detective James Dana. “But with the statewide drought emergency, you could be looking at criminal charges of arson.”

To that end, here’s what to know that could help avoid a bad outcome.

‘Safe and sane’ vs. illegal

In California, any item that explodes, rises in the air or moves about the ground, and anything not labeled “safe and sane” by the State Fire Marshal is considered illegal.

Legal, or “safe and sane,” fireworks can be distinguished by their brightly colored paper, and will include a trade name and manufacturing information on the packaging. These typically include sparklers, ground spinners, fountains, snappers and caps.

Fireworks that can be sold to the general public cannot contain more than 50 milligrams of flash powder ground devices, or 130 milligrams in aerial devices, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Any fireworks that exceed those limits are classified as display fireworks and require anyone handling them to have an ATF license or permit.

Fireworks that are deemed as illegal explosive devices – M-80s, cherry bombs or quarter sticks – often come in plain wrappers with no identifying marks.

M-80s are considered felonies,” Dana said. One M-80 packs a little under the amount of explosive powder as a stick of dynamite. An M-100 is equivalent to a full stick.

Such devices, Dana said, can be highly unstable because their short fuses can trigger accidental detonation.

Are ‘safe and sane’ fireworks allowed in your county?

The laws on the use of “safe and sane” fireworks differ from county to county.

In Orange County, fireworks are only legal in the cities of Anaheim, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Santa Ana, Stanton, Villa Park, and Westminster.

In Los Angeles County, cities that allow the use of “Safe and Sane” fireworks include: Alhambra, Artesia, Azusa, Baldwin Park, Bell Bellflower, Bell Gardens, Carson, Commerce, Compton, Cudahy, Downey, El Monte, Hawaiian Gardens, Hawthorne, Huntington Park, Industry, Inglewood, Irwindale, La Mirada, La Puente, Lakewood, Lawndale, Lynwood, Maywood, Monterey Park, Norwalk, Palmdale, Paramount, Pico Rivera, Rosemead, South El Monte, Santa Fe Springs, South Gate, Temple City, Vernon

In San Bernardino County, fireworks are only allowed in the following cities: Adelanto, Chino, Colton, Needles and Rialto, as well as specific locations in Fontana, Grand Terrace, and San Bernardino.

All fireworks, including sparklers, are illegal in Riverside County – except in Blythe, Coachella, Desert Hot Springs and Indio – because of the heightened risk of brush fires.

Police response

There’s been an uptick in recent years in calls for illegal fireworks being set off in the days surrounding July 4th, according to law enforcement authorities, and although resources can be stretched thin, a sampling of agencies throughout Southern California told a reporter that efforts are made to respond to every call.

Last year in Orange County, the sheriff’s department’s dispatch received nearly 300 calls regarding fireworks, and more than 3,000 across the county’s other agencies, Hilton said.

More than 1,000 calls were made in Riverside, and Pasadena saw similar numbers, according to Pasadena Police Cmdr. Art Chute.

“We respond to every call, though response may be delayed when we’re handling a large volume of calls,” Chute said.

Some agencies prefer that residents not call police emergency lines about fireworks, and instead use apps.

“Please do not call 911 or the non-emergency line to report illegal fireworks. Our dispatchers receive hundreds of calls per day! When you report through the MyHB app instead of calling, our HBPD dispatchers can focus on potential life and death emergencies,” the Huntington Beach Police Department says on its Facebook page.

San Bernardino and Riverside counties are among those adding apps for fireworks complaints in recent years, and more cities now have web portals.

While it can be difficult to locate the source of illegal fireworks, Chute said officers are not required to witness them being set off in order for there to be consequences.

“If we can visibly see fireworks being set off in a backyard or private residence, we do not need a warrant to come inside and issue citations,” Chute said.

Hilton said he attributes the increase in calls in recent years to the coronavirus pandemic, with many county-sponsored firework shows having been canceled, and residents stuck at home looking for a way to celebrate.

He said he is hopeful that number will decrease this year with more official events being held.

The consequences

Some 66% of fireworks injuries happen around the holiday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says.

Last year, at a block party on South San Carlo Avenue in San Bernardino, someone lit a mortar-style firework and placed it in a launching tube. The tube somehow tipped over, and when the mortar rocketed out of the tube, it struck an 8-year-old boy in the chest.

Police went to the area of the block party, but by the time they arrived, there was no trace of anyone — or the illegal fireworks.

Fireworks are often purchased legally in other states and smuggled into California, sometimes by criminal street gangs.

In Ontario in March 2021, a large cache of fireworks exploded, killing both occupants of the home, igniting other fires and damaging additional properties nearby.

Ordinarily, a person in possession of fireworks in violation of the State Fireworks Law is punishable as a misdemeanor or a public offense.

The fines can range from $500 to more than $50,000, depending on the gross weight of the fireworks in possession. Detective Dana said that amid the current, severe drought conditions in the region, additional charges could be added if a firework starts a blaze.

In 2020, an increase in the amount of palm tree and brush fires caused by fireworks in Riverside spurred the city to implement an ordinance increasing the fines for illegally storing, transporting or setting off fireworks from $1,000 to $5,000. Last year’s holiday resulted in 31 citations in the city for non-permitted possession and use of fireworks, and over 800 pounds of illegal explosives confiscated.

The previous year saw 58 citations, and 652 pounds confiscated.

In the past four years, San Bernardino County Fire Department has confiscated over 121,600 pounds of fireworks and issued more than 700 citations.

A toll on veterans

For veterans dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the weeks leading up to the holiday can spark anxiety, discomfort, and fear.

“The sights, sounds or smells of the explosive powder in fireworks can remind veterans of the trauma they faced on the battlefield,” said Richard Beam, a spokesperson for the VA Long Beach Healthcare System.

For those living with someone who might be triggered by the explosions, Beam recommends creating a comfortable environment in the home where loud noises can be heard less, and with distractions to keep their minds busy.

“Have family members remind them that they are not in any danger, that they are with their loved ones,” Beam said. “It might even be beneficial to connect them with an old war buddy.”

“No one would better understand what they’re going through,” he said.

As a courtesy, residents who plan on setting off fireworks on their block could notify any neighbors who are veterans what time the display will start and how long it will last.

A veteran or family member needing help can call the Veterans Affairs hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Protecting pets

“The past couple of weekends there’s been fireworks in the middle of the day up until late at night,” Corlew, the Westminster resident, said. “Friday night, fireworks were going off and my dog was out on the lawn. She bolted through a hole in the fence and took off down the street.”

A day passed before Corlew received word from someone that spotted a dog matching Adrian’s description lying in the road.

Madeline Bernstein, president of spcLA, said there is an increase in the number of pets turned over to her shelters during the holiday after fleeing their homes. Throughout the night, staff are stationed outside shelters to handle the pets brought in, and to attempt to reunite them with their owners quickly.

“Your pet dog is not street smart,” Bernstein said. “Your cat might be brave in the yard, but out in the open in new environments, on top of all the loud noises, they’re going to panic.”

To try to keep animals safe throughout the weekend, Bernstein recommended ensuring the yard is secure and having identification on pets, including a tag or microchip.

“Get your pet out for a walk first and make sure they go to the bathroom,” she said. “Then keep them inside, in a quiet room with the TV or radio on, give them their favorite toys and treats and just keep them distracted.”

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