The fire in fireworks sparks concernBy Shelby Martin
For many, the Fourth of July holiday means picnics, parades and pyrotechnics.
But thanks to smoldering wildfires across California, some Bay Area revelers this year may only experience the first two.
Concerns about fire safety have sparked a potential fireworks ban in Watsonville, a pyrotechnic curfew in Pacifica and the cancellation of Scotts Valley's annual fireworks show.
Only nine cities in the Bay Area and surrounding counties allow the sale and use of "safe and sane" personal fireworks like sparklers, fountains and ground spinners approved by the California fire marshal.
That number might soon shrink with the Watsonville City Council holding a special session tonight to consider a ban on the sale of fireworks in their area.
At least one more traditional vendor of safe and sane fireworks is cracking down this year.
The city of Pacifica will levy harsher penalties for users of illegal fireworks and impose an 11 p.m. curfew on all pyrotechnic displays.
"If you've ever been to Pacifica during the Fourth of July, it's like a war zone," Pacifica police Captain Dave Bertini explained. "We get run ragged every year."
As always, anyone caught in possession of illegal fireworks in Pacifica will be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.
For the first time this year, Bertini said, users of illegal fireworks will also face a $1,000 administrative fine. Even safe and sane fireworks will be prohibited after 11 p.m., and violations will result in fines of up to $1,000.
Bertini said banning fireworks entirely would be hard on the charitable groups that sell them as fundraisers.
Fireworks are "a huge moneymaker for the non-profits that run the booths," he said.
Tuesday night, the Gilroy City Council considered a ban on the sale of fireworks, but ultimately voted against it.
"We've had some fires in the recent weeks by lightning. We can't create an ordinance to ban lightning, it happens," Gilroy Councilman Dion Bracco said during the discussion. "Fourth of July is July, it's a dry month every year and Gilroy has done a very good job with their fireworks program."
Representatives from Union City, Newark, Dublin, San Bruno, Hollister and San Juan Bautista said there were no plans to ban firework sales in their cities or impose new restrictions on their use.
"The booth is already up," said San Juan Bautista City Clerk Trish Paetz.
San Bruno Fire Marshal George Devendorf stressed that the most serious fire danger doesn't come from safe and sane fireworks, but from illegal devices like bottle rockets and Roman candles, which are banned across California.
"We gear up quite a bit (for the Fourth), but it's for the illegal fireworks, not the safe and sane ones," he said.
Arson investigator and Hollister Fire Marshal Michael O'Connor agreed with Devendorf's assessment.
"In the past three years, I have not been able to determine that any fire was set by a safe and sane firework," he said. "It's the bottle rockets landing on the roofs and the mortars landing in the fields" that start fires.
Most cities that offer public fireworks displays are moving ahead with their plans, including San Jose. But one city has pulled back. Scotts Valley Fire Chief Mike McMurry decided to cancel the city's annual fireworks show.
He cited this year's extremely dry conditions and added that firefighting teams are already spread thin battling wildfires across the state.
McMurry said he had heard mostly positive responses to the decision.
"Folks get it," he said. "They understand that this year is unique."
Mercury News reporter Sandra Gonzales contributed to this report.
Copyright ©2008 San Jose Mercury News. Published 06/25/2008.