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Santa Rosa fields widespread complaints of illegal fireworks

The fireworks detonated around 3 a.m. Tuesday, triggering a brief spell of bedlam in the Santa Rosa home of Lisa Ostello. Her dog, a 7-year-old pit bull mix named Sadie, panicked and tried to get out of the house. Partially blind, Sadie ran into a wall.

“It was awful,” said Ostello, who has twice called police to report what’s become an almost nightly rendition, the boom and barrage of illegal fireworks in the city. Those explosions terrify her dog and are rampant, she said, in her neighborhood, just east of Roseland. “You never know when they’re going to go off. It doesn’t just happen at night.”

Her primary concern is for Sadie, who also suffers from a brain tumor, and for other dogs frightened by these fireworks, which are illegal in all but three Sonoma County cities: Cloverdale, Rohnert Park and Sebastopol. Complaints also have come from those suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, who can be triggered by sudden, sharp noises that sound like gunfire.

This explosion, as it were, of illicit pyrotechnics has both police and firefighters on high alert. As of Tuesday morning, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office had responded to 24 calls involving illegal fireworks over just the previous three days, Sgt. Juan Valencia said.

Starting Wednesday and for the next several nights, Santa Rosa police will send out extra patrols to respond to increased fireworks calls. Likewise, Santa Rosa Fire Department will beef up its numbers of firefighters and inspectors on July 4, Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said.

“We just got over a red flag warning,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Amy Head, referring to a period of exceptionally dangerous fire weather. After noting the extremely dry conditions in the county, she pointed out that an errant firework “could very easily spark a wildfire.”

The widespread cancellation of professional fireworks extravaganzas such as Santa Rosa’s popular Red, White & Boom, leaves fire prevention experts fearful that ordinary citizens will be tempted to conduct their own displays, with possibly disastrous results.

“We’ve consistently been telling people they need to find safe ways to celebrate” in the wake of those cancellations, Lowenthal said. The Independence Day weekend cannot devolve into “amateur hour” with illegal fireworks, he said.

“This year, with the conditions we’re in, that literally is a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Lowenthal described the increased reports of illegal pyrotechnics as “unacceptable,” and called on citizens to “start taking ownership, and responsibility, for their actions.

“The last thing this city and county need is another fire that could’ve been avoided,” the city fire official said.

Calls about fireworks are typical for the week or so preceding July 4, said Sgt. Josh Ludtke of the Santa Rosa police department. But the complaints in 2020 have been more numerous, and started rolling in much earlier, due at least in part to the stay-at-home orders issued by the county in mid-March to tamp down the coronavirus threat.

One custom that sprung up, in the wake of those orders, is the “8 o’clock howl” in certain neighborhoods around the county, Ludtke said. “We noticed that some fireworks have been incorporated into that ritual.”

Santa Rosa’s rash of illegal fireworks fits into a national pattern — another unexpected consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

The 1,700 fireworks-related resident complaints logged in New York City in the first half of June were an 80-fold increase from the year before, according to the New York Times. The paper attributed the dramatic increase to people seeking release “after months of boredom and seclusion in cramped apartments,” and to “celebration of hard-fought strides made during the demonstrations, and a show of defiance toward the police.”

Responding to such complaints is often futile, Sgt. Ludtke said. “By the time we get there, usually in the middle of the night, it’s unclear where (the fireworks) came from,” and the people who ignited them have disappeared.

This has proven especially maddening for a man who lives near the intersection of Hearn Avenue and Dutton Meadow in the city, near a neighbor with a seemingly bottomless arsenal of M80s, firecrackers and other ordnance, which the neighbor ignites at all hours.

Upon complaining to Santa Rosa police the first time, the man — who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from his neighbor — was told he would need to provide a specific address.

“So then I got an address, and they told me there’s nothing they can do unless they catch them in the act,” the man said Tuesday. “I said, ‘But by the time I call you, and by the time you respond, they’re not going to be setting them off anymore.’ ”

At least the police dispatcher was sympathetic. “He said, ‘Yeah, it’s a problem in my neighborhood, too.’”

It’s an emotional issue to Ostello, a receptionist at Analy Veterinary Hospital in Sebastopol. On her Facebook profile, she’s posted a picture of Ryder, a pit bull in Southern California who was so startled by a recent fireworks explosion there, she said, that he jumped off a balcony to his death.

Ostello and her husband intend to leave their Santa Rosa neighborhood on Saturday’s Independence Day holiday.

“This place is going to be a war zone,” she predicted. They’ll take Sadie to the beach, “or somewhere away from explosions.”

The city’s Fire Department will have reinforcements ready to respond on July 4.

“It would be great if we had all that staff in place, and there was nothing to do,” Lowenthal said. “Our fear is that it’s going to be a busy night.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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