When news agencies from all over the central coast reported that Santa Cruz County law enforcement officers seized more than 1,100 pounds of illegal fireworks from a house on the outskirts of Watsonville last month, with many residents of the northernmost town South County were skeptical that the substantial bust had made a dent in the fireworks that go off daily.

“There’s a lot going on tonight that they haven’t found,” one person wrote on Facebook in response to a post.

The booming explosions and the pretty air shows that usually ring at times of celebration and bring smiles to onlookers, have become a noisy bane to South County residents who are calling on the city government to step up its enforcement of fireworks. ‘illegal artifice and possibly to ban the sale of the “safe and sane” variety.

City officials say thunderous pyrotechnics this year started earlier and are triggered more frequently – sometimes even brazenly in the middle of the day – but they have no plans to stop the sale of fires legal fireworks within city limits. Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra said removing them would do little to curb the illegal fireworks that are making residents unhappy and becoming more and more prevalent.

“There are a handful of issues that I say, ‘I wish I could have a magic wand to fix the problem,’ and this is definitely one of them,” Dutra said.

Selling ‘safe and sane’ fireworks, the ones that don’t explode or leave the ground when lit, serves as a major fundraiser for more than 20 local nonprofits and youth sports teams in Watsonville, the only city in Santa Cruz County that allows their sale. Cutting that annual income, Dutra said, would be a devastating financial blow to many of these organizations.

Watsonville City Council has previously discussed how it might crack down on illegal fireworks, but those talks have generally turned sour. That’s because these debates have wrongly pitted nonprofits that run fireworks stands against residents who are fed up with racketeering, says former city councilor Trina Coffman-Gomez.

Coffman-Gomez, who was dismissed from his post last year, says there needs to be more education on the issue so residents can together ban fetching the illegal fireworks, rather than to try to eliminate the “sure and sane”. She points out that many residents are unaware that the money the city earns in sales tax from fireworks stands pays for the overtime accumulated by the Watsonville police and fire departments on July 4.

During his last year in office, Coffman-Gomez, after an annual report on “safe and sane” fireworks, passed a motion to further discuss the matter. But the city “dropped the ball,” she said, and the article has yet to be referred to city council. Mayor Dutra said there are no plans to make any changes to the city’s fireworks ordinance this year.

The city, for its part, has attempted to curb illegal fireworks by hosting an annual fireworks display at the airport, but even with this event in place, the skies over Watsonville are still ablaze on Independence Day. and the weeks leading up to it.

Explosion radius

Watsonville Police Department Sgt. Bryan Fuentez agreed with Dutra and Coffman-Gomez that banning all fireworks would not reduce the use of illegal fires. Fuentez lives in another part of the county where all fireworks are banned, and says he still hears illegal fireworks almost every night. The problem, he says, extends even beyond the county line.

“No matter where you go, you talk to someone in Gilroy, someone in Hollister, someone in Morgan Hill, they’re all going to say the same thing, ‘It’s like a war zone here’,” he said. “It’s everyone’s line, but it’s true. I saw things last year that I would never have seen before. It was quite spectacular… but when they leave at all hours of the night, then several days before, it’s like “enough is already”.

Fuentez says WPD, as it does every year, will increase the number of officers available to respond to illegal fireworks calls in the week leading up to July 4, which this year falls on a Sunday. On July 4, the Watsonville Fire Department will also tour the city with citations of up to $ 1,000 per violation.

Nearby in Capitola, the only other town in the county that allows “safe and sane” fireworks on private property, Police Chief Terry McManus said his service would also increase the number. agents available to respond to reports of illegal fireworks beginning on the Friday before the holiday. McManus did not have data available on whether calls for illegal fireworks had increased since last year, but said his officers took the reports seriously.

“Illegal fireworks… are a total nuisance,” says McManus. “Talk to the mayor [Yvette] Brooks, she is concerned about the impact these illegal fireworks have on families, on disturbing people in their homes, and the effect they have on animals and the environment.

Melanie Sobel, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, said illegal fireworks often caused pets to panic and flee their homes. Sometimes, she adds, they hurt each other in their frantic race to get to the shelter of the roadblocks.

“On July 4, the week before and the week after, shelters, in general, are inundated with pets,” she said.

But Sobel says she has also seen an increase in the number of illegal fireworks set off throughout the year in Santa Cruz. These explosions are also approaching the Rodriguez Street shelter in Live Oak, she said, as people often set off illegal fireworks in the school behind that location.

“These poor shelter animals have to face this ownerless fear and anxiety to comfort them,” she says.

Bang-up job

Last month’s massive illegal fireworks display by the Santa Cruz County Auto Theft Reductions Enforcement (SCARE) task force was not the result of a lengthy investigation or advice from a resident. Fuentez says that to his knowledge, the SCARE team stumbled upon this monstrous pile of fireworks – they were investigating this property for a different reason.

“This is really how we get the big catches,” says Fuentez. “When we do something else and see all of this. “

The daily enforcement of illegal fireworks is a much different and more difficult task. Typically, when a resident calls to report that illegal fireworks have been set off, they don’t have the exact location from where it was fired, Fuentez says. The power of some large fireworks will make it look like they’ve exploded a few feet from their home, he adds.

“But those fireworks are probably several blocks away,” he says.

McManus adds that even though one of his officers is dispatched to the exact address of where the fireworks are said to have been set off, he finds himself in the difficult position of determining if there are enough probable reasons. to knock on a resident’s door. Capitola and Watsonville Police usually only impose a fine if they catch someone with the lit match in their hand.

“We must always respect the rights of the individual before doing a follow-up investigation [on a report] that might have limited information, ”McManus says.

Coffman-Gomez says Watsonville needs to get past this illegal fireworks “mole-hit” police force and look at what other cities are doing to successfully silence the air blasts.

Some communities, like nearby Seaside, increased fines for illegal fireworks and used drones to catch perpetrators on July 4. Others, like Pacifica, Redwood City, Sacramento and San Jose, are now turning to a “social hosts” ordinance, which allows law enforcement to impose heavy fines on tenants and landlords for fireworks. illegal fireworks set off on their land, which they lit the match. But the ordinances don’t do much, and the root of the problem, Coffman-Gomez says, is the uncontrolled influx of illegal fireworks from outside California.

“We tried various options [to stop illegal fireworks], but the real discussion that needs to take place is, on a legislative level, what can we do to better criminalize this as a problem that we have here chronically, ”she said.

She is not alone in urging state lawmakers and law enforcement officials to take action against illegal fireworks. Last month, a Los Angeles County supervisor called on the federal government to fix the issue by July 4. His advocacy with the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and United States Customs and Border Protection came two months after an illegal stockpile of fires exploded. firework in a city east of Los Angeles, killing two men and causing $ 3.2 million in damage.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s 2019 Annual Fireworks Report – the latest report available, at least 12 people died using fireworks that year, and there were around 10,000 injuries associated with fireworks, including approximately 7,300 between June 21 and July 21.

Dry county

For many, July 4 will be the first time they reunite with friends and family since the start of the pandemic, and Chief McManus says he fears the illegal use of fireworks will escalate. arrow accordingly. In addition, no local professional fireworks show is scheduled for July 4th, so firework enthusiasts could take matters into their own hands.

“Will there likely be an even bigger celebratory activity on July 4th due to the joy of coming out of this Covid time? There probably is, ”McManus says. “We also have to take this into account. “

It’s troubling, says Mayor Dutra, given the current drought conditions in Santa Cruz County and the great state of California. Local Cal Fire officials said this fire season could be “very active” due to the dry conditions.

“We really have to take into account the state of our environment right now,” says Dutra.

Sobel says the ordinances and legislation are a good step in reducing illegal fireworks, but stresses that education is also essential. She says that many people who set off these fireworks are unaware of the negative effects of their actions. “It’s teaching people that this might not be the best way to recreate and spend my time because I upset veterans, I keep people awake at night, and I terrify animals too. “, she says. “It’s a bit like sterilizing and sterilizing. No one had their animals spayed and neutered 30 or 40 years ago, and then it became part of the vernacular. [Bob Barker] at The price is right always says, ‘Sterilize and neuter your pets.’ People didn’t even know what sterilize and sterilize was, and now people know what it is… it takes time.

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