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Earlier fireworks season means more hazards, headaches for first responders and residents

Rather than wait for the Fourth of July, many Southern California residents are blowing off quarantine steam by blowing up mostly-illegal fireworks — earlier than ever, shaken neighbors say.

The trend has heightened concerns among those who have to endure the relentless, home-rattling blasts in their streets, police who find it hard to quell lawbreakers and medical workers who must deal with at times horrific consequences.

Many cities, because of coronavirus social-distancing concerns, have canceled public fireworks displays that typically wrangle people as viewers, not participants. Authorities wonder if that has fanned the move to ignite the pyrotechnics at home sooner than later.

“If you or your family are feeling under siege by illegal fireworks right now, you’re not alone,” Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said Thursday. “It seems like they’re exploding in every neighborhood of our city. Nobody knows why this year of all years this phenomenon is occurring, not just across the city of Los Angeles but across the nation.

“It’s very, very dangerous.”

Rattled neighborhoods 

“They’re shooting off every night,” North Long Beach resident Dante Macatantan said. “Like M-80 professional-grade fireworks … straight up blasts.”

He said it was around Mother’s Day this year when he started hearing fireworks.

“There are a lot of people who are suffering, like people with PTSD or people with dogs. I have my own anxiety and it aggravates it,” said Macatantan, 34.

Rod Jerls, 73, a resident of the Riverside County community of Home Gardens, said he left the military with PTSD after serving in the Marines for 15 years, including a stint as a door gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam. The sudden explosions trigger mild to severe reactions.

“I feel like I’m being shot at. I get to the point where I shake and can’t hold a cup of coffee,” Jerls said.


Marine veteran Rod Jerls of Home Gardens said the largest explosions from fireworks make his PTSD worse and cause him to shake. ‘I feel like I’m being shot at,’ the 73–year-old former helicopter gunner said. (Brian Rokos, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Moreno Valley resident Dawn Kalapp said she is convinced that some people simply don’t care about others like Jerls.

“I think there’s a lack of compassion for others lately,” said Kalapp, who said this has been the “worst year” for fireworks illegally being shot off.

Feuer, in a Thursday news conference, said children with special needs and sensory issues are especially affected.

And Kalapp, 49, became emotional as she spoke about Sadie, her 7-year-old springer spaniel. Putting her in a closet and playing classical music and turning up the TV volume as blasts rock the neighborhood behind Lake Perris hasn’t helped.

“When these fireworks go off, she goes into a frenzy, eyes wide, rapid breathing, drooling, trying to hide,” she said.

Macatantan, a Disneyland performer, has lived in Long Beach for only about one year but said he’s already considered moving. Instead, in late May he created a Facebook group, Long Beach Against Illegal Fireworks, geared at reducing the fireworks he says plagues the city.

Members of the Long Beach Facebook group liken the city to a war zone: loud booms, rattling windows, smoke and howls of terrified dogs. The group has grown to more than 1,500 members. Many do more than grumble online.

Some lobby city officials during council meetings, while others scour online for sales of illicit fireworks. Others patrol neighborhoods, taking cell phone videos of those setting them off.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia addressed the matter on Monday, June 22, on Twitter.

“The fireworks these last few years have been horrific. Especially this year,” he said. “It’s happening all across the state and these fireworks are getting more dangerous and accessible. We have already confiscated tons of illegal fireworks but need (a) different approach. Need a statewide ban.”

All fireworks are illegal in the city of Los Angeles, which has been developing a major awareness campaign about the negative impacts of the explosives, Feuer said.

“The issue of illegal fireworks is a quality of life issue and a public safety issue.”

Enforcement Challenge

There are two categories of fireworks: the so-called safe-and-sane variety approved by the state Fire Marshal such as cones and sparklers, and the illegal-everywhere variety that can fly through the sky or move along the ground.

Safe and sane fireworks are legal only in pockets in Southern California, such as in a handful of Riverside County desert cities and south of the 210 Freeway in the city of San Bernardino. Of Orange County’s 34 cities, only 10 allow them.

Catching the lawbreakers is not so easy, police agencies say.

Many have dedicated tip lines where people can report activity. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has a task force working out of its Moreno Valley station. Riverside police plan to have an extra 30-35 officers on fireworks duty on July 4.

But that doesn’t easily translate into arrests or citations.

Santa Ana police are planning on staffing up for the weekend of the holiday, said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna. The Fourth falls on a Saturday this year.

“We anticipate four days of activity,” he said.

Already in Santa Ana, one of the densest cities in Orange County, the calls have been continual, Bertagna said.

“We respond to the calls, but there’s only so many of us.”

“By the time (residents) call about fireworks and we get it to dispatch, they have already gone off, so unless they continue to do it and you catch them, there’s not a lot we can do,” he said.

Anaheim police echoed those sentiments.

“We have to catch somebody doing it,” said Sgt. Shane Carringer. While the fines are steep — $1,000 for a first offense — those responsible are hard to nab.

“Oftentimes we get residential complaints, even they don’t know where (fireworks) are coming from,” Carringer said.

Safe and sane fireworks are legal in Santa Ana but those have yet to go on sale. Somehow, the illegal fireworks — that rain fountains of light in the sky or just detonate a loud explosion–are aplenty.

Already, authorities have seized thousands of pounds of illegal fireworks throughout Southern California.

Officers in San Bernardino have been patrolling the city in search of illegal fireworks. On Tuesday, June 23, they seized 3,270 pounds of the illicit explosives and made 21 arrests, authorities said. (Courtesy of the San Bernardino Police Department)

Bertagna said most of the time, people cross state lines into Nevada and Arizona to stock up on the combustibles. Around the time of the holiday, designated officers will work operations to take down sellers. Last week, Santa Ana police seized more than 1,500 illegal fireworks during an enforcement operation. Soon after, more mass busts followed.

The San Bernardino Police Department has been deploying teams in the evening to track and confiscate illicit fireworks. On Tuesday, police officers seized about 3,270 pounds of illegal fireworks; officers arrested 21 people and issued 11 fines, authorities said.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies at the Carson station seized $12,000 worth of illegal fireworks and cited 17 people. Typically deputies do patrols for fireworks in early July, but this year they started in June because of the early start of the activity, deputies said.

Meanwhile, numerous fires are under investigation that may yet be attributed to fireworks.

In San Bernardino County in June, a spark from fireworks hit a palm tree that burst into flames. The blaze spread to an SUV, said Fire Department spokesman Eric Sherwin.

In Santa Ana, police anticipate the nighttime blasts will continue, especially now that the annual display at Centennial Park has been canceled.

“There’s nowhere for them to go,” Bertagna said of the city’s residents.

Injury danger

Whether illegal or legal, all fireworks can be dangerous.

David Wong, chief of trauma and critical care services at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, said the burn unit he directs treats a handful of the most serious injuries every year, including patients who lose parts of their hands.

Last month, a child about 8 came in with most of the skin blown off a hand when a firework he was holding exploded.

Wong said many people injured by fireworks are children. Adults are showing them the explosive when it detonates. A person holding a firework panics and throws it in the direction of a child. Or an aerial firework lands in a stroller.

“Sometimes the adults are not aware the kids are on fire until it becomes pretty serious,” Wong said.

Children are some of the most vulnerable to fireworks injuries.

“Their skin is a lot thinner,” said Dr. Andrea Dunkelman, medical director of the Orange County Burn Center. The seemingly-innocuous sparkling wands so popular with kids is a common culprit for burns in youth.

Skin grafts are sometimes necessary, and there isn’t a drug powerful enough to completely ease the agony, Wong said.

“That is described constantly as one of the most painful things they can experience,” he said.

Dr. Steven Kim, chief of the emergency department at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, says he expects more fireworks-related injuries this year. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Steven Kim, chief of the emergency department at Riverside Community Hospital, said his ER sees few fireworks injuries on July 4th — instead mostly heat-related illnesses, near-drownings and broken bones from softball games.

But he worries that could change this year.

“We’ve been in this lockdown state for a while and people are getting cabin fever,” he said. “As our communities start loosening up quite a bit, people are going to be looking for fireworks and there is the potential they will try to set more off. I would predict we will have a higher incidence this year than previous years of fireworks-related injuries.”

The Orange County Burn Center, located at OC Global Medical Center in Santa Ana, sees about 20 to 30 patients during a typical July 4th holiday, Dunkelman said. So far, doctors there have not yet seen any fireworks-related injuries, she said, but this year the staff has another factor to consider: coronavirus.

“People are afraid to come to emergency rooms,” she said, adding that the hospital is taking proper precautions. “I don’t want people to delay their treatment because they’re afraid of COVID. Burns scar very quickly if they’re not treated.”

She also wonders if the pandemic might help to stem the number of fireworks injuries. “Maybe there will be fewer with people staying home and not having big parties because of COVID,” she said.

Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Capt. Fernando Herrera doesn’t share that view.

“I think we’ll see a lot more versus other years,” he said.


Source: Orange County Register

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