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Illegal fireworks citations climbing
Jeff Serpa
Ceres Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Serpa looks over some of the illegal fireworks that were turned into the station during an amnesty event and some that were seized on the Fourth of July. Anything that explodes – like firecrackers or M-80s – or leaves the ground – such as bottle rockets and aerial fireworks – are illegal to possess and ignite. - photo by Jeff Benziger

In its well-publicized campaign to combat the use and possession of illegal fireworks, Ceres Police cited 53 individuals for illegal fireworks between 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 4 and 1:30 a.m. the next morning. Ceres Fire Department personnel issued seven citations of their own.

The city’s special hotline for reporting the use of illegal firework was busy with 155 calls during the same time period. The city fielded a total of 201 reports of illegal fireworks for the three-day period.

“The outcome of this campaign was an overall success,” Ceres Police Sgt. Pat  Crane reported to the Ceres City Council on Monday. “This is not to say there are no areas for improving. Staff can identify areas that can be improved on surrounding the reporting of illegal fireworks, better placement of personnel and you will see the improvement in next year’s campaign.”

Some said the crackdown had a somewhat negligible effect on the illegal aerial displays that popped all over Ceres. Lee Brandt, who has called for a citywide ban of all fireworks in past years, said this year’s celebration was “worse” as far as illegal fireworks are concerned.

“My house is literally shaking from all the illegal fireworks this year,” said Gale Hyatt, who lives on Hackett Road, on the night of the Fourth. “This is the worst it’s ever been.”

In California, anything that explodes – like firecrackers or M-80s – or leaves the ground – such as bottle rockets and aerial fireworks – are illegal to possess and ignite.

The city allocated five extra patrols of police officers, including a volunteer who spotted illegal fireworks. Three additional vehicles were also on patrol. Extra fire personnel were scheduled for the holiday to respond to fires and reports of illegal fireworks cracking overhead, said Battalion Chief Rich Scola.

Ceres Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Serpa said his department answered 37 calls for service from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the Fourth, of which four were structure fires, five vegetation calls and three trash fires. He said about half of the fire calls were related to fireworks.

“Most everything was illegal fireworks use,” said Serpa.

The largest fire was a 2.5-acre grass fire at Ceres River Bluff Regional Park started by a Roman candle, Serpa said. The fire tied up several units for about three hours.

“We have so much illegal fireworks use. Our call volume just about doubles (on the Fourth). We usually run 17-18 calls and had 37 calls department wide.

“The size, I think, is increasing. We had a few last night (July 4) where we had multiple aerials going up at the same time that made for some pretty spectacular displays but they’re illegal. We did our best.”

Part of the crackdown included a hotline where residents could report their neighbors for blowing off illegal fireworks starting at 5 p.m. on the Fourth.

“The volume of calls that came in was more than was anticipated and an additional records person was needed to handle the calls and emails,” said Sgt. Crane. “A second person came in at 9 p.m. … and handled the reporting of illegal fireworks until midnight.”

A total of 43 persons were issued citations on July 4 with six citations pending this week. Over the three-day enforcement period, a total of 53 citations were issued.

Those given an administrative citation will have to pay their $1,000 fine without going before a judge. If it’s not paid, the city has the option of shutting off utilities to the violator’s residence.

Sgt. Crane said illegal fireworks activity declined dramatically the next night, July 5, with a total of 30 reports which led to seven citations. On Saturday 15 calls were reported with three citations.

Fire Chief Kevin Wise said the effort “went pretty well with the fact that we didn’t have any major incidences within the city.”

Two years ago under state law, local authorities had to see a person lighting an illegal firework to issue them a citation. In May 2017 the city decided to go the administrative citation route by changing the municipal code. Now, Serpa said, a citation can be issued to the property owner or tenant if it’s observed that a bottle rocket or other flying object leaves the property.

“So even if they’re having a party, say they bring something and fires it off from their property, the property owner is still responsible,” said Serpa.

He added that “honestly some people just don’t care.”

“I ran into a gentleman last night where he’s like, ‘I’ll pay the fine. I don’t care.’ Apparently he’s got more money than I do because I definitely wouldn’t want to pay a thousand dollar fine to light off fireworks. I caught him red-handed.”

The man Serpa caught lived in the Morgan and Hackett area of Ceres. He said while most people know they can start a fire or cause damage property with mortar type fireworks that launch into the sky, they’re “willing to take that chance.”

“That’s why we get a dozen fire calls out of it every year on the Fourth of July. We’ve been fairly lucky that we haven’t had any houses burn down but we have had property damage in the past where fireworks have done damage to cars and whatever. It’s unfortunate that people are so short-sighted. They always say that hindsight is 20/20. Well, when you burn your house down, burn your neighbor’s house down, blow your fingers off because the firework went off to early, you’re like, ‘Oh, probably shouldn’t have done that.’”

Getting a citation does not mean a property owner can continue blowing off illegal fireworks without fear of subsequent citations. In fact, Serpa said he believed multiple violations at the same address could result in criminal charges.

Fire personnel have a disadvantage in enforcing the law since they aren’t armed and don’t have full authority like police officers do.

“Generally we’re alone. It’s hard for us to really enforce things like that. We don’t want to confront a group of 20 people who’ve maybe had alcohol. It’s not a safe thing for us to be doing. We do what we can and we were able to give seven last night.” 

In early June Ceres Police Chief Rick Collins and Fire Chief Kevin Wise presented details on the first-ever joint task force to combat illegal fireworks in Ceres. The mission included educating the public on the dangers of using illegal fireworks with posters and yard signs, and zero tolerance enforcement for the use, possession, or sale of dangerous or illegal fireworks.

Included in part of the effort was a Fireworks Surrender Event where those with illegal fireworks were allowed to turn in their contraband without questions or prosecution. The event, held during business hours on July 1, 2 and 3 at the downtown Ceres Fire Station, yielded little response, however.

“I think this is something we’ll build on for years to come,” commented Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra on the crackdown.

Many of the varieties of fireworks illegal in California are purchased in Mexico and some counties in Nevada where they are legal, Serpa said.

“People will literally go get truck loads and bring them back from out of state and sell them out of the back of a truck.”

The CHP arrested a man for speeding on I-80 near Gold Run on Monday and discovered he had 135 pounds of illegal fireworks. He was arrested.

Officers from various agencies confiscated more than 125,000 pounds of illegal fireworks valued at $21 million during a recent seizure operation throughout San Bernardino County, Cal Fire officials announced in a July 3 press release.

River fire Ceres
Ceres firefighters were tied up for hours putting out a grass fire at Ceres River Bluff Regional Park on July 4. It was caused by someone using a Roman candle.