Frustration was beginning to fester this month for some Wasco residents who felt nothing was being done to stop an apparent increase in the use of illegal fireworks, according to Wasco City Manager Daniel Ortiz.
Kern County Fire Department Deputy Chief Aaron Duncan was present at the June 2 Wasco City Council meeting to address those frustrations and ways the city can assist the fire department, Ortiz said.
“Historically, KCFD enforces the use of illegal fireworks in our community by doing routine patrols,” Ortiz said. “We had not seen that happen this year and that was leading to a lot of frustration from residents, from the appearance of minimal activity from the fire department.”
Ortiz acknowledged that KCFD is still abiding by COVID-19 precautions, which can limit the department's contact with the community. However, he said since the June 2 meeting KCFD is developing an educational awareness tool about illegal fireworks and has modernized how residents can report instances.
On Monday, KCFD rolled out a brand new online portal where residents can report illegal firework use. The form allows residents to do so anonymously — although contact names and information are recommended for follow-up purposes — and to provide detailed information about the incident and location.
“Historically around the Fourth of July and the days leading up to the Fourth, there would be a hotline individuals could call,” said Andrew Freeborn, KCFD public information officer. “The problem is that it takes extra personnel to man that hotline and it was only up on certain days and certain hours. We’re aiming to continue doing the same high level of service at less expense.”
Freeborn said there's been an overwhelmingly positive response from county residents regarding the launch of the online portal. He said KCFD has received feedback that illegal fireworks have been an issue in local neighborhoods, remarking that it “sounds like a war zone” on a nightly basis.
“I feel personally that I’ve heard (illegal fireworks) more as an individual in this community than we have in the past,” Freeborn said. “We’re getting a lot more elected officials and residents pointing the issue out.”
“It seems that it's a common consensus, that it does seem there are more than usual.”
Bakersfield Fire Department Battalion Chief Casey Snow added that illegal firework use has spiked in the past week, making a “big difference” when compared to years passed.
“We’ve been putting some measures in place a little sooner than we usually do for the Fourth of July holiday,” Snow said.
BFD has started establishing teams of unmarked vehicles and fire engine companies to issue $1,000 citations to those violating fireworks laws, according to a BFD news release.
Snow said BFD has responded to at least four grass fires in the past week that resulted from fireworks. BFD responded to 142 calls for illegal fireworks between Friday afternoon and Monday morning, 130 more than the same time period last year.
Between May 8 and June 8, the Bakersfield Police Department received 187 calls for service that mention fireworks — an average of about six per day — said Sgt. Nathan McCauley. BPD has arrested at least one person related to the use of illegal fireworks over the past two months, according to McCauley on June 8.
“It’s hard to arrest someone if you don’t catch them in the act of shooting fireworks off illegally,” McCauley said. “Usually the arrest will have something to do with other offenses being committed at the time.”
The Kern County Sheriff’s Office’s Communications Division has also reported an increase in calls regarding illegal fireworks in recent weeks, according to Lt. David Kessler. While data for the calls was not readily available, Kessler pointed out they've come in earlier in the year than in previous years.
Ortiz attributed the increase in incidents to people taking advantage of the fire department's COVID-19 precautions.
“People feel the sense that people can get away with it because the fire department hadn’t done anything about it until now,” he said.
Firework sales in Bakersfield are legal from July 1 through July 4 and are only legal to use July 2 through 12:30 a.m. on July 5. In Kern County, firework sales are legal on the same dates, although they can be bought in Rosamond on June 28-29.
For more information about firework usage and fines, visit http://youlightitwewriteit.com.