Debate rages in fire-scarred Sonoma County: Should fireworks be banned?
Retired firefighter Jeff Myers used to enjoy setting off fireworks in a cul-de-sac with his family in past years - usually with a garden hose and fire extinguisher ready. But after he lost his Larkfield home in the October wildfires, he now says it’s “absolute insanity” to allow firework sales in Sonoma County, or anywhere in California.
Fireworks didn’t cause the wildfire that burned Myers’ home down, but environmental conditions are ripe this season for more fires to come, he said. A fire weather warning was issued for eastern Sonoma County and Napa County, starting late tonight and lasting until?11 p.m. Saturday.
Like many other fire-scarred residents, Myers is convinced that even “safe and sane” consumer fireworks should not be sold or allowed in Sonoma County.
“It’s a helluva thing to physically and emotionally lose everything and all you did was go to bed,” he said. “Anyone that goes through this with a disaster, I just can’t see how they would turn around and embrace the chance for recurrence.”
It’s a point that resonates widely in the North Bay this year, running squarely into long-standing traditions that mark American independence and assist local nonprofits that raise much-needed funds through fireworks sales.
“I’m caught in the middle,” said Bill Braga, the fire chief in Sebastopol, one of four cities in Sonoma County where fireworks are allowed. The others are Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cloverdale.
“I truly understand the fear, anxiety, and quite honestly, the anger. On the flipside, I understand the tradition and the nonprofits who benefit,” Braga said.
Sebastopol has received a higher volume of complaints about firework sales compared to previous years, Braga said. He credited that pattern to fear in the wake of last year’s wildfire disaster and this week’s news of a large wildfire menacing eastern Lake County.
The sale of safe and sane fireworks - ones that sizzle but don’t shoot in the air and go “boom” - began Thursday in Sebastopol and will start Saturday in Rohnert Park. The sales often are the largest annual fundraisers for some area nonprofits.
The Sebastopol Gravenstein Lions Club began selling safe and sane fireworks Thursday in front of Safeway on Main Street. Last year, the club raised about $20,000 from firework sales, which fund high school scholarships, school nurses and glasses for low-income children, Lions Club President Stan Ramondo said.
“It makes us a viable part of the community to help the community out,” said Ramondo, who anticipates sales this year will be about the same as last year.
Concerned residents raised the issue of firework sales before city leaders in Sebastopol and Petaluma, officials said. Neither took moves to curb or ban sales that have been allowed for years.
But Braga said the city has looked to additional safeguards to bolster fire prevention. Braga said he has been stricter with weed abatement enforcement on properties within Sebastopol in May and June.
“It’ll be interesting to see if this is our last year or not (of fireworks sales),” Braga said. “If it’s luck or not, we haven’t had a problem with safe and sane fireworks.”
Other city officials said they also have taken extra precautions to guard against firework-?sparked blazes, even in jurisdictions where fireworks are banned.
Those places where consumer fireworks are off-limits include Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Windsor, Healdsburg, Cotati and unincorporated Sonoma County.
Petaluma Fire Marshal Jessica Power said she also has had a barrage of calls from residents voicing concern over firework sales. Patrol teams will enforce regulations, and they’ve made efforts to educate residents about firework safety, she said.
Santa Rosa will have fireworks enforcement teams this year, which include police and firefighters patrolling on the Fourth of July, Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said.
About 30 percent of Santa Rosa is prone to wildfire, and “the use of fireworks in these areas poses a significant threat to our city,” Lowenthal said in a statement.
Anyone who sells, transports or uses fireworks without the “safe and sane” label in California could be fined up to $50,000 and jailed for a year, according to Cal Fire.
In 35 years as a Sebastopol firefighter, Braga said he can’t recall a single time there was a large fire started from a firework spark. In Sebastopol, the kind of fires he has seen from fireworks generally come from negligent disposal.
“Other than those minimal type garbage fires, we’ve had zero incidents,” he said.
Kevin Tran, 28, lost his childhood home in Coffey Park to the Tubbs fire and plans to spend the Fourth of July the same way he did before the October wildfires: with friends in Sebastopol, setting off legal fireworks. He considers TNT’s Piccolo Pete, a grounded firework that screams at a high pitch, one of his favorites.
“I totally understand where everyone is coming from. People are traumatized by what happened to our community,” said Tran, whose sister also lost her Coffey Park home to the firestorm.
Before fireworks were banned in Santa Rosa in 2004, the Tran family, who are originally from Vietnam, purchased fireworks from the National Guard in Santa Rosa and hosted a barbecue with family and friends. Kids would trade fireworks and line them up. Adults kept a large bucket of water on the driveway.
“I never felt more American as I did on July 4th,” he said.
Tran doesn’t want to live in fear, and continuing his Fourth of July tradition helps him heal from the wildfires and move on, he said.
“I can’t stop living my life,” he said. “I love celebrating those childhood memories.”
Still, Myers, the retired firefighter, recommends people visit public firework displays by pyrotechnicians, occurring across the county starting this weekend and through the Fourth of July.
“People have to put general good above personal entertainment based on the environmental conditions of this state,” Myers said.
You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter@susanmini.