“It’s not getting any better.”
Despite aggressive, innovative enforcement measures, illegal fireworks were just as bad as ever this year, according to Bakersfield Fire Chief Doug Greener and anyone with ears.
And things aren’t going to get better without some serious firepower.
By that I mean the state and federal agencies getting off their duffs and stopping the obviously unfettered flow of illegal fireworks into this state.
The number of illegal fireworks blasting away over the Fourth was so vast, Chief Greener said the city could write $1 million, even $2 million, worth of citations if it had the manpower. That's at $1,000 per citation.
“We’re an emergency response department, we aren’t equipped to enforce a city-wide event like this,” he explained. “We’re not going to have any real effect until the supply into the city is cut.”
Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall agreed.
“You can drive a few hours, but as many illegal fireworks as you want, bring ‘em back here and shoot ‘em off,” he said. “That’s too easy.”
The stuff has to be stopped at our borders and the effort must be year round, he said.
And that’s just something that local departments have no authority to do.
That used to be something the State Fire Marshal dealt with fairly regularly.
Fireworks checkpoints just this side of the Nevada border are sporadic at best.
And if semi trucks filled with illegal fireworks that are supposed to beeline out of state from California ports “drop” a load along the way, no one seems to be checking.
An officer in South Gate last year stumbled on a warehouse filled with 200,000 pounds of illegal fireworks. That’s enough to fill five or six semi rigs.
We’re not talking about your uncle Ed tooling over to Parhump one weekend to get a trunk full of Roman candles.
This has clearly become a very big black market business.
And yet, the State Fire Marshal’s office had to beg and plead just to get some one-time funding a few years ago in order to collect illegal fireworks confiscated by local agencies, one of that department’s most basic tasks.
Forget about any actual customs enforcement.
When I mention these problems to local agencies and even the State Fire Marshal’s office, I get agreement that, yup, state and federal agencies should do more.
But no one seems to be doing much to to get that horse out of the corral.
In his Senate confirmation hearing last month, new State Fire Marshal Dennis Mathisen said he wanted to make illegal fireworks a top priority for his office and he recognized how overwhelmed local fire departments are by this problem.
What’s he got planned?
Uhhhh...a review of state fireworks regulations and inspecting fireworks booths, according to spokesman Daniel Berlant.
We’re literally under siege every year and the Fire Marshal’s plan is to review regulations?
Berlant said the Fire Marshal’s office is also talking to the California Fire Chief’s Association about the issue.
“But I don’t want to call it a task force,” he said.
Oh good gravy, where’s Elliott Ness when you need him?
If Mathisen, who was on vacation this week, is serious about eradicating illegal fireworks he needs to get local fire and police chiefs, sheriffs, city council members and county supervisors behind him to call for enough funding for year round checkpoints and officers at border crossings where we know the illegal fireworks are coming in.
We need enough personnel to check the manifests of semi trucks carrying fireworks bound out of state to make sure all their cargo makes its destination.
How do you fund it? Well, there are the fines levied on criminals, of course.
And you could sell confiscated illegal fireworks to states where they’re legal. That’s been proposed before but shot down.
Instead, California pays exorbitant amounts to store the illegal junk then ship it to Louisiana to have it burned in a hazardous waste dump.
That’s sooooo California.
Anyhow, one of the only truly proactive groups I’ve seen in all this mess is TNT.
That’s right, the fireworks manufacturer.
TNT has championed numerous bills to try and stem the flow of illegal fireworks into California. Illegal fireworks are its biggest competitor, so it makes sense.
And TNT even created a phone ap called “Nail ‘Em” to help average citizens report illegal fireworks use to authorities. (Kern County used it this past year.)
I’d like to see TNT mobilize its army of charities that contract for fireworks every year to lobby local and state politicians for more state action against illegal fireworks.
Those folks are dedicated, organized and typically as opposed to illegal fireworks as TNT.
Just a thought.
But even as departments experiment with phone aps, drones and citing people selling illegal fireworks via social media, the problem continues to grow.
And it will continue to grow until the state truly gets in the game.