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Fireworks safety tips: What to know ahead of the Fourth of July

A couple on the roof of their car watch fireworks.
Fireworks in Los Alamitos draw spectators on July 4, 2020.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A video of a semitruck full of illegal fireworks exploding went viral on social media Wednesday evening. The incident, which damaged homes and injured 17 people, took place in a South Los Angeles neighborhood.

It turned out that Los Angeles police had confiscated several thousand pounds of illegal homemade and commercial fireworks. An LAPD bomb squad transferred the boxes into the iron chamber of a semitruck and detonated the devices, believing the vehicle would be able to contain the explosion.

They were wrong.

Inadvertent fireworks explosions, which sometimes turn deadly, are an all-too-common occurrence in Southern California. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 19,500 reported fires are started by fireworks annually, and burns account for 44% of the 9,100 injuries treated in emergency rooms the month before July 4.

A deadly fireworks explosion in Ontario is a reminder of California’s patchwork of pyrotechnics laws: illegal in L.A., legal in the next town over, sometimes. The current status quo partly dates to a Sacramento corruption and sex scandal in the 1980s.

What’s the deal with fireworks in L.A.? Aren’t they illegal?

In some California cities and counties, you can legally buy and set off approved fireworks. But in L.A. and many parts of L.A. County, it’s illegal.

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These inconsistent laws across the state create a confusing situation where you can buy legally in one city, but if you bring them into another city that bans them, you’re breaking the law.

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer recently reminded residents that fireworks were a particular danger in a drought-stricken region and announced that his office would focus on stopping online sales of illegal explosives ahead of the July 4 weekend.

What are the penalties for using illegal fireworks?

In terms of legal penalties, fines can reach $1,000. You also might lose a finger or set off a devastating and deadly wildfire.

So are fireworks illegal and the consequences for setting them off sometimes serious? Yes. Even so, will you hear fireworks going off in your neighborhood? Probably.

General safety tips

Despite the risks, many Californians are obsessed with fireworks in L.A. — whiz-bangs, bottle rockets, Roman candles, aerial spinners. And lectures and warnings only go so far.

So if you are (unwisely, likely illegally) setting off fireworks this Fourth of July, here’s what you need to know about fireworks safety, according to the National Fire Protection Assn. and the National Safety Council.

  • Store fireworks in a cold, dry place.
  • Do not make your own fireworks.
  • Always use fireworks outside.
  • Keep fireworks away from brush, leaves and any flammable substances.
  • Have a bucket of water and a hose nearby in case of accidents.
  • Do not point fireworks at anyone, even as a joke.
  • Light one firework at a time.
  • Never light something in a container.
  • Never re-light a firework that’s a dud or that previously malfunctioned.
  • Kids should not play with fireworks. Children ages 10 to 14 have the highest rate of fireworks injury, according to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report, with more than one-third of the victims of fireworks injuries under age 15.
  • Don’t play with fireworks when you’re drunk or otherwise impaired.

Are sparklers less dangerous?

Sparklers should only be used outside and kept away from the face, clothing and hair. They can reach 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough not only to boil your water and bake your cake but also to melt glass. And sparklers account for roughly 25% of the emergency room fireworks injuries.

A major explosion in South Los Angeles damaged buildings and injured at least 16 people, including police officers, as a bomb squad was in the process of seizing more than 5,000 pounds of illegal fireworks in the area.

What do you do if you get injured?

  • If you get burned, remove clothing from the burned area and call your doctor immediately.
  • If there’s an eye injury, don’t touch or rub it. Don’t flush the eye out with water or try to put ointment on it. Protect the injured eye and get medical care right away.

Some safe and fun (really!) alternatives

  • Glow sticks are pretty cool. You can make glow stick jewelry and glasses — or a glow stick centerpiece that looks like a firework — and you can pretend you’re at a rave. It’s fun for all ages.
  • Noisemakers are also very loud and startling — and will annoy your uptight neighbors in a similar way. Same with confetti poppers.
  • Also, professionals are really skilled at fireworks shows. It’s an art that we should appreciate. We don’t need to DIY everything.

4th of July events are back in Southern California as the state reopens.


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