Costa Mesa police and fire dampen plans of those selling, discharging illegal fireworks

Since May 24, Costa Mesa police have seized more than 600 pounds of illegal fireworks being sold online.
Since May 24, Costa Mesa police have seized more than 600 pounds of illegal fireworks being sold online.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Police Department)

As summer approaches, purveyors of illegal fireworks are stocking up ahead of the Fourth of July holiday and police officers are already busting them.

Costa Mesa Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit — a team that typically deals with narcotic, vice and gang-related offenses and intelligence gathering — is once more training its focus on illegal explosives being sold as Independence Day approaches.

Officers have so far seized more than 600 pounds of contraband explosives being sold in Costa Mesa and recently assisted in the seizure of another 1,000 pounds in San Bernardino, police reported Wednesday.

Illegal fireworks seized by Costa Mesa Police Department's Special Investigations Unit.
Illegal fireworks seized by Costa Mesa Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Fire Department)

Undercover detectives arrange purchases through online marketplaces like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp, where individuals advertise illicit fireworks with much more firepower than the “safe and sane” varieties allowed in some California communities.

Lt. Ed Everett, who oversees CMPD’s Investigation Services Bureau, said Thursday two individuals were detained following a May 24 transaction and eventually cited for unknowingly selling 186 pounds of illegal fireworks to police officers posing online as customers.

“Around late May or early June, individuals go to states like Nevada and Arizona and buy a truckload of fireworks, knowing people here will buy them for Fourth of July,” Everett said. “For the last few years, we’ve used SIU to locate people who are selling illegal fireworks — we do a number of buys every year.”

During a similar June 1 undercover operation, detectives met with a San Bernardino man who agreed to sell them 450 pounds, or 34 boxes, of illegal fireworks. The suspect showed up with the goods and was found carrying a loaded handgun in his truck, according to Everett.

Illegal fireworks, often coming from outside California, do not bear a "safe and sane" seal from the State Fire Marshal.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Police Department)

“In talking to us, he admitted he’d traveled to Las Vegas earlier in the week and had a van full of fireworks in a second location,” he said. “We reached out to the San Bernardino Police Department, and with this individual’s consent, they located an additional 1,000 pounds [of material.]”

Illegal explosives, such as M-80 firecrackers, can damage property or injure handlers and spectators. Everett said last year, a woman outside enjoying legal fireworks was injured after a neighbor lobbed a firecracker across the property line, causing burns, lacerations and dislodging some of the victim’s teeth.

Given this year’s especially dry conditions, larger fireworks also pose the risk of unintentional fires, warns Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Chris Coates, whose personnel work with shoulder to shoulder with police to enforce safety regulations and cite offenders.

Coates says there’s been a recent uptick in the number of juveniles caught igniting illegal fireworks and practicing unsafe behaviors. A park ranger’s report submitted to the city in May described a group of about 10 juveniles throwing firecrackers off a bridge near Fairview Park onto the vehicle of an unsuspecting Placentia Avenue motorist.

“Fire and police and every department in the city is taking that very seriously. Our intention is not only to hold the juvenile accountable but also the parents of the juvenile,” Coates said Thursday, noting both kids and parents or guardians could face fines and criminal charges.

As the Fourth of July draws near, Costa Mesa fire crews will increase staffing and patrols to keep an eye out for illegal activities and potential fire hazards.

Coates suggests those who purchase legal fireworks practice safe handling, including launching them from a piece of drywall or other fire-retardant surface and submerging them in water afterward to ensure no embers are left behind.

Legal fireworks sales, allowed with a city permit, will take place July 1 through 4 at street-corner stands and booths operated by local organizations as fundraisers. All “safe and sane” fireworks will bear a “State of California, State Fire Marshal Registered Fireworks” seal or stamp.

“If it does not have that stamp of approval, stay far away,” Coates advised.

To report illegal fireworks and suspicious activities, call (714) 754-5252.

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