County battles illegal fireworks

Bakersfield Fire Department Chief Doug Greener said his department was kept busy on the Fourth of July due to rampant use of illegal fireworks across the city. “There was more than enough illegal activity to keep our guys busy for weeks if we could get to everybody.” For weeks leading up to the holiday, Greener had been spearheading a campaign, along with The Bakersfield Californian columnist Lois Henry, to reduce the number of illegal fireworks used in Bakersfield.

In accordance with the Kern County Fire Department and Kern County Sheriff’s office, “The Kern County Board of Supervisors enacted the social host liability ordinance for fireworks in 2015. That ordinance states that if illegal fireworks are possessed, manufactured, discharged, stored or sold on his/her private or commercial property, the owner or tenant of that property is liable and will be cited.” Illegal fireworks include any fireworks that have been modified or do not contain the state fire marshal “Safe and Sane” seal of approval.
But this year, Greener and the Bakersfield Fire Department decided to use some decidedly modern methods to battle the old problem. On Friday, June 30, the BFD unveiled a new drone that helped them monitor illegal firework activity during the entire Fourth of July weekend. The drone, called the Low Orbit Incident Satellite, or LOIS, flew above an incident command center in southwest Bakersfield, recording the home-based explosions lighting up the night sky. With the drone, the department can collect video footage and more easily pinpoint where illegal activity is occurring. Video from LOIS’s Independence Day exploits can be seen on YouTube.

The information gleaned from LOIS last weekend will be limited, but it will serve as an important test for the future. “We intend to use these resources to gather some data and to look to the future to incorporate it as a full enforcement resource, and also it’s not simply for the Fourth,” said Greener. “We will use it for training purposes as well as resources on some of our more complex fire-related instances.” Still, it’s no coincidence the department tested out the new technology out over this particular holiday, since it has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to illegal firework activity. “To a degree, we can do that from the ground, but we can never tell what street (the illegal activity) is on,” said Greener. “If we have that third-dimension view from above, we think we will be able to direct resources.”

In another nod to the modern world, the BFD and Sheriff’s Departments also closely monitored community Facebook posts, where residents seemed more willing to complain about illegal fireworks going off in their neighborhoods than officially reporting them to the authorities. Members of the community have various ideas and feelings about public use of fireworks. Some feel strongly that the selling of fireworks to the public should be banned completely. Some feel there should be less individual celebration and more of a community celebration. Some feel that the community should be trusted to use large flying fireworks with caution.
Regardless of how the community feels about it, the authorities were out in force, with over 20 teams out patrolling in Bakersfield alone. Under new city regulations, city firefighters may now issue administrative citations for illegal fireworks. “That means that we no longer need to have enough evidence to support a criminal citation…We don’t have to see someone physically light an illegal firework to cite them. We just have to have relative evidence that seems reasonable in our estimation that makes a citation warranted,” Greener stated.
Although the BFD and BPD waged an all-out assault on illegal fireworks activity, the results were mixed. Reports from the KCFD showed that the Fireworks Task Force Hotline, staffed up to 25 personnel, received 474 calls, and the Fire Dispatch received almost 100 calls on the evening of the Fourth alone, including 11 reported fires caused by illegal firework activity. However, the Taskforce of 15 as well as stations wrote 43 citations, and 500 pounds of fireworks were confiscated.

In spite of the staggering numbers coming out of Bakersfield, the Kern River Valley appeared to fare much better. Although campgrounds around the Lake and River were packed to the gills, the Kern County Fire Department Lake Isabella Station reported just two calls to the station about illegal fireworks, and our local Sheriff’s substation received no reports of illegal activities. Perhaps KRV residents got their fill of “oohs” and “ahhs” at the night sky with the fantastic light show put on by the Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce on Saturday night. And our local fire crews performed several pre-emptory “controlled” burns around the lake at highly populated camp areas, as well as at the fireworks launch site in an effort to prevent any accidental flare-ups.

But before we give ourselves that enthusiastic pat on the back for staying well ahead of the “Safe and Sane” pack, those were just the “reported” incidents. Several residents who attended lake fireworks viewing parties in Wofford Heights on the first spoke of hearing a “whole slew” of backyard fireworks going off in that area alone. So even though there were remarkably few illegal fireworks incidents actually reported, in reality, it appears that many took place.

Does that mean that KRV residents just don’t like to call authorities? Perhaps in the future, they might reconsider giving their local fire station a call. Remember that our fire season is just beginning. The grass and brush are brown, the air is hot and dry, and our winds can pick up at a moment’s notice. Overall, the most important factor is safety and caution when using any fireworks, even simple sparklers, or any household or garden tools and machinery that cause a spark or a flame. “Safe and Sane” isn’t just for fireworks anymore. It should be the mantra that carries us through the rest of the summer fire season.

Editor’s Note: While Bakersfield allows fireworks with the “Safe and Sane” classification, all fireworks in the Kern River Valley are illegal except for the KRV Chamber of Commerce show.