Opinion Columns & Blogs

Stapley: A look at fireworks from both sides now

How to have a ‘Safe and Sane’ July Fourth — but still have fireworks

Tribune reporter Gabby Ferreira finds out how to stay safe while setting off fireworks from Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Steve Lieberman. They set off an assortment of "Safe and Sane" fireworks for the Fourth of July holiday.
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Tribune reporter Gabby Ferreira finds out how to stay safe while setting off fireworks from Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Steve Lieberman. They set off an assortment of "Safe and Sane" fireworks for the Fourth of July holiday.

Four-and-a-half years ago, as a Modesto Bee reporter working a New Year’s Day shift, I covered the sad aftermath of a fire that destroyed a two-story home in east Modesto, displacing a couple and their three young children. They smelled smoke, went outside and found their wood-shake roof on fire at 12:51 a.m., and their home soon went up in flames. All the neighbors I spoke with said the sky had been lit up before that with illegal flying firecrackers, probably launched from nearby streets.

“The last thing I want is to lose everything I own because people want to blow stuff up in the sky,” one neighbor said.

Talk about sobering.

I guess that’s when I started rethinking whether our tradition of fireworks every New Year’s and every Fourth of July is really a good idea.

It’s a debate worth having, and we’ve had it from time to time for many years here in bone-dry California, fresh off the worst and deadliest fire season in history.

Some places, like Tuolumne County and many Bay Area counties, have thrown in the towel and outlawed even those deemed safe and sane. Others likely will never give them up, noting crucial financial support for nonprofits who sell them. Plus, they can be a lot of fun.

Some consider fireworks as a part of their heritage, maybe a God-given right. I understand; I was born on July 4 myself. It wouldn’t seem like a birthday without that annual gathering on our street to light a bunch of ground bloom flowers, Piccolo Petes and killer bee fountains. Often, we would jump in the car and head to Ripon (they’re not doing it this year), or to John Thurman Field in west Modesto, to see the professional displays as well.

That’s what air quality experts want us all to do, saying smoke from personal fireworks contains dangerous particulate matter that will get in your lungs and bloodstream and cause heart attacks and strokes. That logic puzzles me; don’t the fancy professional displays spew the same dangerous particulate matter? Or worse, because they’re so much bigger?

Modesto’s attempt to crack down on illegal fireworks a couple years ago would seem amusing, if the subject were not so serious. First, our leaders adopted an ordinance fining landlords and property managers $1,000 for failing to control tenants. Then the Fire Department made a clerical error, then the whole thing was called off because of complaints of unfairness.

Three years ago, we visited my brother-in-law in Utah, also a dry climate, for the Fourth. He lives high on a hill in Orem overlooking the valley, so we took blankets and sat outside to watch the show below. We saw thousands upon thousands of private aerial displays unfolding over many miles, as far as we could see to both the right and the left — literally, 100 at any moment, for a couple of hours solid. This organic, unscripted display was one of the most stunning, spectacular things I’d ever seen. And every last one of them is considered illegal in California.

How do they manage, I wondered, not to burn everything up? Not to mention harm to veterans with PTSD, and driving dogs nuts. If one were to apply there the same dire warnings we get every year here, one would expect nothing short of disaster the entire state over. But the next morning, everything seemed to be perfectly normal.

Are we overreacting when we worry about fireworks danger?

Well, fireworks still are blamed for 18,500 fires and $43 million in property damage every year, the National Fire Protection Association says. Hospital emergency rooms treated 12,900 people for injuries related to fireworks in 2017, the association says.

Last year, the Utah Legislature adopted HB 38, cutting the days that fireworks are allowed in half, and allowing cities to more easily restrict them in fire-prone areas.

As a kid, I used to love riding in the back of a pickup, and nobody wore a helmet on a motorcycle. I wondered what this world was coming to when both were outlawed. But now, I have to admit, both seem like the right call. And Californians appear to have adapted.

I secretly hope that the time is far off when safe and sane fireworks no longer are embraced in our Valley. But it seems a fair bet that that day will come.

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