The fog of illegal fireworks blasts seen in many Los Angeles communities during 2016 independence celebrations was likely the result of an influx of illicit imports, which could spark the same problem this Fourth of July weekend, experts say.
The threat is especially serious this year because the rainy season in California was one of the wettest on record. It ended a five-year drought, but the precipitation also nourished vegetation. With 100-degree temperatures arriving even before last week's official launch of summer, the mix is helping to create a natural tinder box.
"Grass this summer is dry, dense and 6 feet tall in some places," says Scott McLean, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "It's like a fuse. It just takes one spark."
Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Erik Scott says, "We are extremely concerned about the potential for brush fires caused by fireworks."
What's more, there's a sense among some experts that illegal fireworks use and importation has been on the rise in recent years in Southern California. Dennis C. Revell, a spokesman for TNT Fireworks, a producer of state-legal "safe and sane" pyrotechnics that can be used in nearly 300 communities across the Golden State, says readily available illegal fireworks "is a problem in virtually every community in the state — and it's getting worse."
He said state law enforcement has had such a backlog of seized fireworks that authorities have had to ship them to Louisiana for disposal. The illicit pyrotechnics, often imported from China, comes ashore via the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Revell says. While train shipments take them to states where they're legal, some trucks deliver illegal fireworks to black-market sellers in California via what's known as "drop shipments," he says. It's not supposed to happen, but it does.
Some illicit pyrotechnics comes north from Mexico, and some comes west from Pahrump, Nevada, too, Revell says. The result can be a flood of bottle rockets, stick rockets and Roman candles, Revell says. "Anything that goes up in the air is illegal in California," he says.
"Safe and sane" fireworks are legal in 296 communities in the Golden State, including dozens in Los Angeles County. They come in packaging that has "safe and sane" safety stickers, Revell says, and they're available at about 3,000 roadside booths operated by nonprofit organizations.
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However, even state-legal fireworks aren't legit in the city of Los Angeles. "The LAFD realizes the Fourth of July is a great holiday," Scott says. "It's a time to celebrate the birth of our country with family and friends. At the same time, it's important to remember that all fireworks are illegal in the city."
The rationale is based on injuries caused by fireworks. Scott cites National Fire Protection Association data on fireworks injuries, including 12,000 emergency room cases in 2015. Sixty-five percent of those injuries were burns, Scott says. It's traditionally the busiest day of the year for reports of fire in the city of L.A., he says.
Causing brush fires, injuring neighbors and burning oneself are all good reasons to take heed of local fireworks laws. But those who spark up illegal fireworks also could be arrested. "Possession or use of illegal fireworks can range from a fine of up to $1,000, to one year in county jail," according to the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger. "Certain products like M-80s and M-100s are considered explosives and are a felony to possess, with penalties as high as 16 months in state prison."
The best way to celebrate is to attend a legal fireworks show in the city or in Los Angeles County, Scott says.