Jeff Jardine

Illegal fireworks easy to see – hard to catch the lighters, though

A Patterson Fire Department firetruck makes rounds during a previous fireworks season through the streets of Patterson’s Heartland Ranch subdivision as an illegal firework explodes in the background.
A Patterson Fire Department firetruck makes rounds during a previous fireworks season through the streets of Patterson’s Heartland Ranch subdivision as an illegal firework explodes in the background. Modesto Bee file

Beginning Thursday, fire and police officials in and around Modesto will spend the next several nights combing the neighborhoods and watching for illegal fireworks.

The illegal ones are pretty easy to spot. They shoot up a couple of hundred feet in the air, exploding with bursts of color and sending trails of sparks back down toward our bone-dry terra firma. We’re in the fourth year of drought, and with temperatures hovering around triple digits, these rockets’ red glare presents a danger to homes and landscapes.

The legal ones – the “safe and sane” types – are easy to see, too. They are sold by licensed nonprofits that get the proper permits from the cities or the county. They are dispensed from ovenlike plywood booths manned by dedicated volunteers looking to make money for their respective causes. The “safe” fireworks are ignited the vast majority of the time on paved streets or in driveways, and their sparks seldom rise more than 6 feet off of the ground. Want altitude? Place them on an aluminum ladder. The people who buy these fireworks are genuinely responsible folks who want to give their families a low-grade thrill on a hot July Fourth night, perhaps instilling a bit of patriotism in the kids in the process. The only real downside comes from when people handle the fireworks wrong, trying to relight duds and being too close when they ignite.

Otherwise, when folks want to “ooh” and “aah” at the sky-high kind, the Modesto Nuts, California State University, Stanislaus, the county and other groups stage shows using licensed professionals.

The problem lies with the scofflaws who go to ridiculous lengths to get the illegal fireworks. They find them via Craigslist or eBay, or they bring them in from states where the skyrockets are legal. Virtually all of these people know what they are doing is illegal and irresponsible, and they don’t give a rat’s backside about their neighbors, the safety of others or the impact the sounds of the explosions have on neighborhood dogs.

So in Modesto, firefighters and police officers are part of a task force that will be working the neighborhoods in unmarked cars. They’ll rely on neighbors who call to complain and ultimately pinpoint the launching pads, and then try to catch these pyrotechnic perps in the act of lighting a fuse.

Just possessing illegal fireworks merits a citation and a $1,000 fine, and authorities have written 308 of them in the past decade, Modesto Fire Marshal Mike Payton said. But catching someone actually lighting one is an elusive task for the task force or any others in law enforcement who respond to such calls, and even more so when the fireworks cause damage or injury.

“In order to arrest and get a conviction, you literally have to watch someone light the fuse,” Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said. “Watching the aerial displays allows you to identify the launch point, but you’ll never get anyone to admit they lit the fuse. We would certainly work with the fire investigators in determining cause and origin of the fire, but it would take witnesses or evidence to identify a suspect in order to make the arrest. Oftentimes, all of the witnesses are usually friends and family members of the individual who lit the fuse and they’re not going to talk. As for the guy who puts on the show, all someone has to do is come forward and identify him, or better yet, get digital video of him lighting the fuse.”

That hasn’t happened. District Attorney Birgit Fladager cannot recall a case coming to her department for prosecution involving a suspect who started a fire that damaged or destroyed a home or property, even though that has happened.

“We know houses have burned down (because of illegal fireworks),” Fladager said. “But it’s like the gunfire on New Year’s. The bullets come back down and hurt somebody, but you can’t tell who fired the shots. The fireworks are the same. You can’t tell which person set it off.”

Those kinds of cases, Payton said, would have to be dealt with in civil court.

The problem, Modesto police Sgt. Kelly Rea said, is making it tougher on the legitimate vendors, meaning the nonprofits who play by the rules by selling the “safe and sane” fireworks.

“I hope they don’t ruin it for them,” Rea said. “There’s a huge push to not even allow the sale of even the safe and sane, with the drought and everything.”

That would devastate the nonprofits and adversely affect the Police Department as well, he said. “We have a booth to raise money for our Explorers unit, to help with uniforms and other costs.” Rea said.

Hence, a greater incentive to stop the illegal ones that are so easy to see yet so difficult to determine who lit the fuse.