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Bam! Boom! Pow! Amateur-hour fireworks spark July 4 weekend

Blame quarantine-induced ennui. Or civil disobedience ignited by anger over police brutality. But no, you’re not imagining those nocturnal cracks, pops and whistles. Amateur pyrotechnic displays are bombarding communities across the country – including in the Bay Area – leading up to the July 4 holiday weekend. 

“We have seen, countywide, an uptick in the use of fireworks,” said Luisa Rapport, Santa Clara County Fire Department information specialist, last week. “In the last, I would say, two weeks, specifically in San Jose, they’ve been receiving a lot of complaints about fireworks, people have been hearing them.”

Throughout June, New York City 911 dispatchers fielded more than 12,500 calls about illegal fireworks displays, approximately 12 times the number of comparable calls in the first six months of 2019, The New York Times reported June 23. Closer to home, fireworks were responsible for starting a blaze in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point area last week, according to that city’s fire department.

The Palo Alto Police Department dispatched a community email expressing concern June 22.

“We hear the illegal fireworks, too, Palo Alto, and we are here to help,” it stated. “Over the past couple of weeks, the Police Department has been receiving many reports from our residents about fireworks and/or gunshots in the evening and overnight hours.”

The majority of the calls to the Palo Alto PD are about activity in East Palo Alto and San Mateo County, according to the email.

Nextdoor.com networks for Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View are currently rife with gripes about amateur fireworks, but few people in those cities have lodged official complaints with law enforcement; the Los Altos Police Department, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office and Mountain View Police Department noted just a few calls each during the past few months.

Penalties include jail time

In Santa Clara County, all fireworks – even sparklers – are illegal. The only exception is within the city of Gilroy, where ones deemed “safe and sane” by the state Health and Safety Code are allowed between July 1 and July 4 each year.

A joint press release issued Thursday by the Santa Clara County Fire Department and the city of San Jose warned about fines for using, possessing, storing or selling illegal fireworks. Each city has its own associated penalties for violations, but they range from fines to even jail time, depending on the quantity of explosives involved; someone caught with less than 25 pounds of “unaltered, dangerous” fireworks could face a fine of at least $500, according to the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Possession of more than 5,000 pounds could lead to a $50,000 fine and/or imprisonment for a first offense. A countywide “social host” ordinance holds residents responsible for the use of fireworks on their property and subjects them to penalties as well.

“It is imperative that residents understand the risk of fire at a time of the year when the weather is hot and grasses and woodlands surrounding our communities are very dry,” said county Fire Chief Tony Bowden, according to the release. “We know that one spark can have disastrous consequences.”

On average each year, fireworks spark approximately 19,500 fires, resulting in five deaths, 46 civilian injuries and $105 million in property damage across the country, the National Fire Protection Association reported.

Legal alternatives

In terms of sanctioned celebratory outlets, Independence Day revelers are a bit limited this year. Among events canceled due to COVID-19 are the Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View; the Glorious Fourth of July Celebration at Shoup Park in Los Altos; and the Los Altos Hills Fourth of July Parade. As an alternative to the usual parade, the Hills will mark the holiday with a vehicle “caravan” more suitable to the observance of social-distancing guidelines; representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, the county fire department, 10-15 classic cars and city council members will leave at 10 a.m. Saturday from town hall, 26379 W. Fremont Road, and complete a loop through town. Spectators are encouraged to watch from Purissima Park, 27500 Purissima Road, Gardner Bullis School, 25890 Fremont Road, or along the route.

While this year’s July 4 won’t match the exuberant festivities of yesteryear, restraint is a necessary concession to ensure Santa Clara County residents’ safety, Rapport said.

“We completely understand the Fourth of July holiday comes at a really unique time when we have these countywide measures in place to protect our residents from COVID-19, and most of our professional displays that we usually enjoy aren’t possible this year,” she said. “But again, it doesn’t change the fact that fireworks are dangerous and they shouldn’t be using them.”

Report illegal fireworks in Los Altos to the Los Altos Police Department at 947-2770, those in Mountain View to the Mountain View Police Department at 903-6395 and those in Los Altos Hills to the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office at (408) 299-2311.

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