Every Fourth of July holiday, the Bakersfield Fire Department assumes an offensive operating mode and mobilizes for fire. BFD fire stations throughout the city are on the highest alert, and typically respond non-stop from call to call to call.
Firefighting crews are deployed, and additional firefighting resources are staffed and on patrol. BFD overhead is reinforced, and the Fire Department Operations Center (DOC) is opened for situational awareness and command oversight.
Fire Department command officers confer over numerous city maps like a multi-dimensional chess board, playing ever-changing response requests from the emergency communications center against available resources. This year was no different, except that I left the DOC at about 10 p.m. in my marked command vehicle, and went patrolling.
As the fire chief, I spend my time on the Fourth of July with command staff doing operational planning on the fourth floor of BFD headquarters. But after noting activity levels in the field, I felt it necessary to get boots on the ground and see the degree of chaos first-hand.
All I can say is that when I entered several neighborhoods after seeing illegal aerial devices being launched, I was totally disappointed. There was literally paper debris and ash still raining down in one cul-de-sac as I arrived.
The scene looked like a stadium, with rows and rows of occupied folding chairs in every front yard, buffet tables, and plenty of empty beer bottles. Adults and kids were everywhere, some scattering.
Too many folks were involved to determine who was in possession, and no one was stepping forward. Without a chief's aide (or a flak vest) for the evening, the odds weren't exactly with me forcing the issue, either.
But clearly, it's not just a few random scofflaws coming in from another states to wreak havoc on Bakersfield. It's all of us, here. Not only those physically lighting the fuses of illegal fireworks, but everyone who sits and watches them or encourages them or shrugs when asked who launched them.
Why the concern?
These are aerial and exploding devices that are illegally imported from Mexico, China and other areas within the United States. We're talking about baseball-sized mortars, exploding aerial shells, M-80s and M-1000s, and other incendiary devices that rival those discharged in professional fireworks displays.
These are bombs and other devices that can kill and maim and destroy. Explosions that rattle window glass, set off car alarms, and send pets into the next county; flying projectiles trailing fire, landing on neighborhood roofs; homes damaged or burned; Bakersfield firefighters and police officers under rocket-fire while responding to a non-stop barrage of illegal fireworks incidents in the urban area.
Throw in a degree of inebriation and some neighborhood situations border on anarchy. Even legal "safe-and-sane" fireworks are being misused and modified (also illegal), which is a local and nationwide problem.
Of the 1,100 or so total greater metro area illegal fireworks responses this year, the BFD/BPD Fireworks Enforcement Teams and the BFD Arson Unit responded to 671 within the city, issuing 61 citations of $1,500 each, and making one arrest. Responses for 2013 are up 20 percent, citations are up 41 percent, and more than 600 pounds of illegal fireworks were seized in the city alone.
An outright ban of personal fireworks is an option, but not one without impacts to law-abiding citizens. Bakersfield is one of several cities within the state of California that allows the purchase and discharge of State Fire Marshal-approved, safe-and-sane fireworks, when used according to very specific guidelines and time frames.
There are also correlations to fireworks sales and local nonprofits' ability to carry out their missions. I appreciate that, but personal responsibility and adherence to the law must reign in the absence of stricter regulation.
Everyone unfairly suffers when others choose to ignore the rules of law and common sense.
On behalf of the men and women of the Bakersfield Fire Department, our partner agencies and our community, I have several requests for next year. Please consider attending an organized fireworks show, produced by certified, permitted and skilled professionals.
Please don't purchase, sell or discharge illegal fireworks, or modify legal ones. And to everyone watching passively in cul-de-sacs across the city as illegal fireworks are launched over their own homes, please don't. Thank you, and be safe!
Doug Greener is chief of the Bakersfield Fire Department. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.