Police to Light Up Revelers Exploding Fireworks Illegally

Last Fourth of July, fire marshals caught people shooting off fireworks in unexpected and illegal places: large parking lots, entrances to housing tracts, even in the middle of major intersections.

Curiously, these places were all in cities where the sale and use of fireworks approved by the state are still legal: Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Orange, Santa Ana and Westminster. But even in these cities, shooting fireworks off anywhere but on private property with the owner's permission is illegal. A sole exception is in Buena Park, where state-approved fireworks can be shot off in city parks.

Voters in Westminster approved a ban on fireworks last month, but the law will take effect after this July 4. It is illegal to sell or use any fireworks on unincorporated county land.

Fireworks will go on sale today in the seven cities where they are legal.

And with fewer places left where fireworks can be set off legally, fire officials have noticed an increasing number of people crossing into those seven cities, looking for a handy place to use their fireworks.

"Last year, we had a tremendous influx on all our borders with cities that don't allow fireworks," Fullerton Fire Marshal Marc Martin said.

The northeastern part of the city, where Fullerton shares a large border with Brea, had the largest influx of out-of-town residents, he said.

"We felt it was a trend, but we don't know what it will be like this year," he said.

Revelers often illegally use public parks and school grounds for fireworks, creating an increased fire and safety danger, fire marshals said.

"The more people you have coming into town, that just increases the level of fireworks activity," Buena Park Fire Marshal Donald Tully said. "And as the activity levels go up, that increases the chances of injury and property damage."

For the last few Independence Days, Westminster Deputy Fire Marshal Elvis Easley has noticed people parking at the entrances to housing developments and lighting fireworks.

One place in Fullerton where people with fireworks have gathered for the last two years is along Laurel Avenue, a small street that begins in Brea, where fireworks are illegal, and ends in Fullerton, where they're legal.

Two years ago, a huge group of people shot off fireworks in the parking lot of Lark Ellen Christian Church on Laurel and "literally trashed" the parking lot, the Rev. Robert O. Weitzeil complained to city officials.

Last year, Weitzeil barricaded the parking lot--which prompted revelers to shoot off fireworks in the street in front of the church, Martin said.

Cities allowing fireworks typically receive inquiries from out-of-town residents in early July. "I've had people from other cities call me on the phone and ask me where they can shoot off fireworks in Costa Mesa," Fire Marshal Thomas Macduff said. "So I know they think about this."

Fullerton, which informally kept track of the calls last year, got about 50 requests for a list of places where neighboring residents could light fireworks.

Fire officials in Costa Mesa, Garden Grove and Santa Ana said they suspect people from outside the area come to their cities to shoot off fireworks, but their fire inspectors have not reported problems.

In Garden Grove, fire inspector Valerie Bottrell said she has answered about three such calls this year from people making early plans.

"And those are the people trying to do the right thing," she said. "Most people will just come into the city and find a place to shoot them off."

Callers looking for a good location in one of the seven cities get, almost unvariably, the same answer: "Nowhere."

"It is against the municipal code to discharge fireworks in our parks," Santa Ana Fire Marshal James Montgomery said. "And the school districts don't allow them to be discharged on school property."

With city laws also prohibiting fireworks to be lighted in the street--although fire inspectors said they leave residents alone when using fireworks on the street in front of their own homes--people have almost nowhere left to light fireworks.

Only Buena Park allows fireworks in its parks, but none will be permitted this year in Bellis Park, where Buena Park will sponsor a professional fireworks display Wednesday.

Except for Costa Mesa, cities where fireworks are legal will have special teams of police and fire inspectors patrolling the streets Wednesday night, looking for illegal fireworks and fireworks being shot off in improper places.

Costa Mesa used to have special patrols but found them ineffective, Macduff said, so regular police officers now answer fireworks-related complaints.

Sharing a border with cities where fireworks are legal also creates problems on the side where fireworks are outlawed. Anaheim, which bars fireworks, is surrounded by cities allowing fireworks. So residents living near the borders go down the street to the stands in Fullerton, Buena Park, Garden Grove and Orange, buy their fireworks and then bring them back into the city, Anaheim Fire Marshal Michael Doty said.

"The majority of our (fireworks) problems now are in the fringe areas, where surrounding cities sell fireworks," Doty said. "They are problem areas, because the kids can walk to the neighborhood stand, purchase fireworks and shoot them off. And unfortunately, it's in Anaheim."

The problem of being a fireworks city in an increasingly anti-fireworks county creates its problems, Fullerton City Councilman Chris Norby said. In October, Norby voted in the 3-2 council majority to keep them legal.

"I like (fireworks), and I want to keep them legal," Norby said. "On the other hand, it's like if you were the only town that sold alcohol--your city would have everybody at its bars on Saturday night."

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