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Illegal fireworks make Fourth of July no fun for some

July 03, 2016

SAN JOSE — Stephani Rideau dreads the Fourth of July.

While many people in the Bay Area welcome the traditional barbecues and parades, Rideau can’t get past what the holiday brings to her South San Jose neighborhood: explosion after house-rattling explosion that makes her feel like she’s living in a Hollywood blockbuster movie.

“It’s become such a negative experience,” said Rideau, president of the Hellyer, Christopher, Riverview Skyway Neighborhood Association. “It’s so disruptive to life.”

Cities from Santa Cruz to San Jose and Palo Alto to Oakland are trying to combat the disruption of illegal fireworks through education, stiffer fines and more police on the streets.

The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office will have units looking for fireworks violations and will rely on ShotSpotter gunfire detection technology to locate hot spots.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is dedicating officers to find illegal fireworks, including unmarked bomb squad and investigation unit vehicles, Sgt. Ray Kelly said.

Oakland police are targeting last year’s highly trafficked fireworks areas in hopes of finding illegal fireworks this year, Officer Marco Marquez said. Oakland police also worry about people taking advantage of the holiday to fire guns into the air, he said.

Rideau hopes new, more stringent regulations in San Jose will make a dent in the number of explosions that rock her neighborhood. The rules make it easier to fine anyone caught using, possessing or selling fireworks, with more officials able to hand out fines, and a bump in the fine for offenders. A first offense is $500, a second offense $700 and a third offense $1,000.

The city will have more officers on patrol for enforcement, as will many Bay Area cities whose officials are also urging residents to skip their personal fireworks shows in favor of professional displays. Thursday, a national public service announcement with that same message debuted to highlight the dangers. It features NFL player Jason Pierre-Paul, who mangled his hand last year using fireworks.

At a news conference Monday, the Santa Clara County Fire Department said more than 10,000 people are hospitalized each year nationwide in incidents related to Fourth of July fireworks. In 2005, a man in Livermore died after a mortar-like firework went off in his face, and in 2014 a San Jose man lost his hand and several fingers on the other hand.

Beyond the risk of injuries, some agencies also worry about fire danger, especially around dry brush, grassland and dehydrated trees that already create a high fire danger.

“It is obviously a concern for us,” San Jose Fire Capt. Chris Salcido said.

Cal Fire officials said that fire and law enforcement officers made two large busts in June and confiscated more than 27,000 pounds of illegal fireworks. Thursday, East Palo Alto police confiscated 600 pounds of fireworks from a home and arrested a 54-year-old man on suspicion of possession of fireworks and explosives. Over the past five years, more than 2,500 structure fires and wildfires were sparked statewide by fireworks, burning thousands of acres, causing countless injuries and costing millions in property loss, officials said.

A handful of Bay Area cities, including Gilroy, Pacifica, San Bruno, Dublin, Newark and Union City, allow state-approved “safe and sane” fireworks -- some operated by nonprofit groups -- but they’re illegal to light elsewhere, including all of Contra Costa County.

“I hope common sense prevails,” said Joe VanBonn, a volunteer selling legal fireworks at a nonprofit Dublin booth Thursday.

Each fireworks purchase comes with safety information and designated locations where people can set off their goods. Others buying fireworks, such as Stephanie Marquez, of Dublin, said they support increased patrols to catch the illegal displays. Marquez said she is concerned about illegal fireworks sparking fires in drought-dry areas, and she limited her Thursday purchase to sparklers she will set off safely with her son.

Only Gilroy residents can purchase the safe and sane fireworks at nonprofit booths there, and the fireworks can be used only through Monday at midnight.

The San Jose program will be enforced through Tuesday and relies on residents to call the police nonemergency line to report violators, or file a report and or video on the city’s website at www.sanjoseca.gov/fireworks.

Steven Spivak, 72, a member of the Cottle to Lean neighborhood association, thinks the widespread use of illegal fireworks reached a peak about four years ago. He recalls spending a July 4 night at the Mt. Hamilton Grandview restaurant, about 1,200 feet above the valley floor, and watching fireworks explode “all across the valley.”

“It’s not going to get solved overnight,” Spivak said. “But if citizens cooperate, we feel the city can make a big dent in the number of incidents of illegal fireworks.”

Times Herald Online - Bay Area