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City leads charge in battle over illegal fireworks
Stiff local fines, more enforcement to be proposed
Illegal fireworks
Illegal mortars are brazenly left out in the open on a street. In California these are illegal and Ceres officials want to end the practice through stiff local fines and greater enforcement. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

Noting that the Fourth of July was plagued with an inordinate amount of illegal fireworks, city officials opened a discussion Monday to take the problem head-on next year.

"Our economy is doing better because most spent a lot of money on illegal fireworks," said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells. "You didn't have to pay for a show because you got a free one."

Wells said the problem is not unique to Ceres but was widespread.

"Every city manager I spoke to regarding this saw a significant amount of aerial fireworks this year."

Wells said one of the challenges of enforcing the ban on illegal fireworks - which is anything to exploded or leaves the ground - is a state health and safety code that requires an officer to actually see someone light it. "So it's a pretty high standard and difficult to enforce," he said.

Some cities like Modesto are seeking to change that by writing illegal fireworks as a violation of municipal code. Wells said if Ceres followed suit "it would give us a lot more latitude and allow the city to set the fine not rather than relying what the state levels are and again the need to prosecute."

He suggested fines of $500 to $1,000 to get people "to realize we're not messing around."

Getting enough personnel on the street to issue citations "will be difficult," said Wells but he proposes to increase the user fee charged to non-profit organizations who are permitted to operate fireworks booths in Ceres to help pay for the salaries linked with enforcement. Currently groups are charged a $250 user fee for a fireworks booth. The additional money could pay for staffing overtime. He said cracking down on illegal fireworks should drive more traffic to the legal variety and the 18 or so groups would in theory make more profit.

The council was supportive of the plan of attack and crafting an ordinance.

Councilmember Linda Ryno asked if others on the council are interested in banning all fireworks in Ceres like Pacifica did recently.

"I might be the cranky old woman up here but ... after seeing last year's - every year it's gotten so ridiculously bad - that I seriously thought why don't we just banning all fireworks," said Ryno. "Then it makes it easier if somebody has them in their possession or shooting them off. It's going to be real obvious who's doing that."

Wells said an outright ban would not allow the city the ability to generate offsetting revenue "to go after that."

Vice Mayor Mike Kline said he doesn't want to see non-profit organizations be denied their biggest fundraiser of the year but he did text the Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes twice on the Fourth to ask if anybody was enforcing the law. Ryno mentioned that the city of San Jose deputized public officials to cite violators there.

Mayor Chris Vierra commented that he's disturbed by the amount of debris from legal fireworks left in the streets and said he wasn't far off from Ryno's stance.

"When I drive home it's horrendous to see the litter that's throughout the streets, the disregard for people picking up, it's terrible," said Vierra. "I'm afraid when I see the things go up in the air that what are we going to do when a person comes to the podium and says their house burned down because somebody's firework went off and got the roof on fire and they lost the home? Or somebody lost a hand?"

Councilman Bret Durossette said a complete ban would require complete county buy-in with the nine cities aboard.
Most cities are not ready to go to a full ban, said Wells.

Leonard Shepherd, a Ceres resident and former state firefighter, suggested fines of $10,000 and a second violation of confiscation of property.

"That might slow them down a little bit," said Shepherd. "When you have people coming into our city with a truckload of illegal fireworks and then selling them to people, it's a multi-million-dollar business in the state of California. We have to do something to curb that."

He said even the so-called "safe and sane" fireworks can be modified to explode and wants to "ban the damned things all."

Sheila Brandt said her church sold fireworks for a profit but decided not to contribute to someone's injury or property loss and found other fundraisers.

"I like Toby's idea about fining people who are using the illegals and the only way we're going to do that is be able to charge those non-profits more money so we have money to work with to hire the extra people that we need," said Brandt.