Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Oh, say, can you knock it off?

The almost full moon provides a bit of abstract composition to fireworks June 30, 2012, as part of the Hilmar Dairy Festival.
The almost full moon provides a bit of abstract composition to fireworks June 30, 2012, as part of the Hilmar Dairy Festival. Modesto Bee file

The rockets’ red glare. The M-80s bursting in air. Gave proof through the night, that the morons are still out there.

A story in Friday’s Modesto Bee detailed how illegal fireworks shot off to ring in the new year likely set afire a nearby Modesto home and displaced its family.

Normally, these would seem like basic questions someone might think of before launching rockets over neighborhoods:

What if it catches a house on fire and the family can’t get out in time? Do the people who perpetuate this all-too-frequent farce really believe that the tick of the clock ringing in the new year somehow justifies threatening others’ safety? Or, with little apparent understanding of Newton’s law of gravity, that bullets going up will come back down and pepper the neighborhood?

Here’s the problem with the illegal fireworks, as I see it:

First, they are illegal, and for a reason. California is a tinder-dry state much of the year, so people get their fireworks from other states where they aren’t banned. We’re not talking about the “safe and sane” stuff sold by nonprofit groups to raise money. The illegal ones are the rockets that explode hundreds of feet above the ground and bloom into sparks at the mercy of the wind and humidity, along with other fireworks that pose safety risks.

Every year, we hear stories of people from all over the country who destroyed their chances of ever playing the piano at Carnegie Hall because they blew off a finger or two playing with fireworks.

The high-flying rockets can do things like set rooftops on fire. They can start grass fires and wildfires. On the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve in particular, alcohol usually enters the equation. Booze, bullets and rockets ... Gee, what could possibly go wrong there?

Even so, we’ve come to expect this hat trick to the point where firefighters don’t try to track down the offenders because they are firefighters, not deputies or police officers, one fire captain told me. In the backs of their minds, he said, they worry about retribution from angry revelers should they try to confiscate fireworks.

At least on New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, most folks know it’s coming. Even police officers are known to park their patrol cars under bridges when the gunfire begins to avoid getting hit by lead returning to earth.

What I find mind-boggling is that so many other nights of the year, someone somewhere launches high-arching fireworks. Modesto Fire Battalion Chief Randy Anderson confirmed this happens virtually every weekend of the year somewhere in the city.

“Absolutely,” he said.

Northeast of Oakdale, the sky lights up with colorful, bursting explosions probably 15 or more weekends a year. The launching pad is somewhere beyond the country club and close to the Stanislaus River, which is lined with brush and fast-burning eucalyptus trees in some places. The fireworks routinely set off a chorus of panicky barking dogs in the neighborhoods.

I enjoy a great, well-planned fireworks show as much as the next person. I covered the third Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran fight in Las Vegas in 1989. The main event was preceded by a pyrotechnic spectacular. It went on for so long and created so much sulfur smoke that neither Duran nor Leonard would emerge from their dressing rooms until it had cleared. (The fight itself was pretty much a dud, with Leonard winning a unanimous decision.)

I’ve seen incredible fireworks displays over the nation’s capital and over San Francisco Bay at AT&T Park. There are good shows at John Thurman Field, Woodward Reservoir and other venues in this area.

Two common denominators: The big fireworks shows are handled by certified pyrotechnicians, not a bunch of giddy amateurs. And they are staged for special occasions.

But when fireworks go off practically every weekend throughout the summer, it dilutes the anticipation and awe that should be reserved for the Fourth and, when done legally, New Year’s.

Consider it similar to what’s happened to Christmas, the 12 days of which have been hijacked into 12 frenzied weeks of shopping. By the time the holiday rolls around, some folks are completely burned out.

Sadly, the same can be said for the Modesto family whose home caught fire New Year’s morning. Which brings me to this challenge to the people who shot off those fireworks:

You’re in the land of the free. How about being brave enough to own up to what you did to their home?

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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