At about 9:30 p.m. last July 4, as people across the region celebrated Independence Day, someone set off fireworks near the Monticello Dam on the southeast shore of Lake Berryessa.
Within minutes, dry brush exploded into flames and fueled a blaze that eventually torched 6,488 acres, injured five firefighters and drove dozens of people from their homes. Firefighters needed eight days to contain the Monticello fire, one of several that erupted over the holiday weekend and sent plumes of thick smoke hanging over Sacramento.
This year, with conditions drier from another year of drought and the unseasonably hot weather of recent days, firefighters are hoping to avoid a repeat of that scenario.
“We dramatically increased our law enforcement patrols this week to make sure we’re getting illegal fireworks off the street,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant, whose agency confiscates 75,000 to 100,000 pounds of illegal fireworks annually.
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That effort still leaves thousands of people setting off “safe and sane” fireworks that are allowed in about 300 communities statewide, as well as officially sanctioned fireworks displays like the ones planned for Cal Expo or over Lake Tahoe.
Despite the obvious danger of mixing open flames and tinder dry conditions, there has been no blanket ban on fireworks use this year, and, some say, there may not be a need for one.
The large fireworks shows that draw thousands of people to various areas typically are conducted with firefighters standing by to make certain nothing goes wrong.
“We believe that we put on a very safe show,” said Jennifer Castleberry, marketing director for Cal Expo, which puts on an annual display that draws more than 15,000 people. “It’s a great event for the Sacramento community, and everything is put on by professionals who are very capable with fireworks and skilled in setting off fireworks.”
The event, which offers general admission seating for free but charges for reserved seats and has a $10 parking fee, drew 17,000 last year despite a grass fire earlier in the day behind Cal Expo that forced the cancellation of a Sacramento Republic FC soccer match at Bonney Field.
In South Lake Tahoe, organizers bill their 34th annual fireworks show as the largest in the West and promise pyrotechnic displays in the shapes of jellyfish, stars and butterflies. Despite its size and the fact that the lake is surrounded by forests, organizers say the show is safe because the fireworks are shot up 1,500 feet from the shoreline.
“We don’t shoot on land,” said Carol Chaplin, executive director of Tahoe Douglas Visitors Authority. “That’s the advantage that we have; there are barges that the fireworks are shot from.”
In fact, Cal Fire says no large fires have been sparked by such public displays in recent memory.
Instead, the major concern is in illegal fireworks that can be shot into the air or that spin around on the ground for distances and can be purchased in Nevada and brought back to California illegally.
Law enforcement patrols already are starting in areas where individual use of fireworks is banned and can be expected through the holiday weekend.
“There are about 300 communities that allow the use of safe and sane fireworks here in California, but it’s very important, especially in the Sacramento region, that people be really cautious where they’re used,” Berlant said.
“You can buy them legally in the city of Sacramento, but there are many communities like El Dorado County and all of Placer County except Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln, and all of Nevada County except Nevada City, where fireworks are banned. Just because you can buy them in some communities doesn’t mean you can use them anywhere.”
The Monticello fire is an example of the patchwork nature of fireworks ordinances. That blaze began near the line between Yolo County – where fireworks are allowed – and Napa County – where they are banned in most areas.
“Every city, county and community makes their own determination about whether there is added risk and whether they should allow safe and sane fireworks or even public displays,” Berlant said.
Some communities around the nation, especially in the drought-stricken West, have considered banning fireworks use outright in recent weeks.
In California, however, the closest the state came to that was when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the public not to buy fireworks in 2008 because of a rash of wildfires during the dry summer. The governor declined to issue an emergency order banning them.
The issue is a delicate one, not just because many people view fireworks on the Fourth of July as a birthright but because sales of legal fireworks generate millions of dollars for school clubs, churches and other nonprofit organizations.
“Most are sold to families, and families are always careful if there’s a drought or not …” said Frank Meder, president of the Fort Sutter Racing Pigeon Club, which runs a stand on Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento. “Families don’t come to safe and sane stands to buy things that will harm their children.”
There also is the simple fact that fireworks are not a main cause of most wildland blazes.
“Fireworks are actually less than 1 percent overall of all of our wildfire causes,” Cal Fire’s Berlant said. Most fires – 30 percent – are caused by power equipment such as lawn mowers.
But law enforcement still will be out in force this weekend trying to keep a handle on things.
“We are going to have basically all of our staff,” said Sacramento County park ranger Sgt. Chris Kemp. “It’s a mandatory work day for all of our rangers on the Third and Fourth.”