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What’s the law? Fireworks’ sale and discharge depend on where you live in Sacramento

How to have a ‘Safe and Sane’ July Fourth — but still have fireworks

Tribune reporter Gabby Ferreira finds out how to stay safe while setting off fireworks from Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Steve Lieberman. They set off an assortment of "Safe and Sane" fireworks for the Fourth of July holiday.
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Tribune reporter Gabby Ferreira finds out how to stay safe while setting off fireworks from Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Steve Lieberman. They set off an assortment of "Safe and Sane" fireworks for the Fourth of July holiday.

Fourth of July shiny rockets, fountains, flowers and flashes are always a charming sight. But did you know that even the tip of a sparkle burns at more than 1,200 degrees, causing thousands of injuries each year?

The Sacramento Fire Department included this “fun” fact in its fireworks safety tips, listing laws and recommendations for the holiday and warning people that fireworks can be dangerous and even deadly.

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, the number of fireworks-related injuries has “declined dramatically” across the country in recent years, reaching an all-time low in 2018 of 3.2 injuries for every 100,000 pounds of fireworks.

Yet, fireworks consumption is rising at higher rates across the United States and, on average, 280 people still go to the emergency room every day in the 30 days surrounding Fourth of July celebrations, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Just last year, spokesman Capt. Keith Wade said the Sacramento Fire Department assisted multiple victims of burn and blast injuries caused by illegal fireworks during “the worst night I’ve ever seen.” The city of Sacramento reported that in 2018 the sale and use of illegal fireworks was on the rise. Officials say they maintain a “zero tolerance” policy, trying to contain the number of fireworks-related injuries and fatalities by enforcing strict regulations.

State laws and county ordinances regulate everything from the production of fireworks, to sales, consumption and discharge. And violators can “be fined up to $50,000 as well as sent to jail for up to one year.”

This fall, the state of California will release even more restrictive regulations “to make sure that both consumer fireworks and display fireworks are as safe as possible,” said Dennis Revell, the spokesperson for TNT Fireworks, one of the industry’s biggest manufacturers.

Who sells legal fireworks?

This year, the sales of fireworks are expected to generate an estimated gross amount of $70 million, Revell said, as both customer demand and seasonal license requests grow year by year. APA predicted that in 2019 sales will top last year’s 277.5 million pounds of sold fireworks.

“If sales remain strong through July 4, consumer fireworks revenues could exceed $1 billion for the 2019 fireworks season,” reported Julie L. Heckman, Executive Director of the APA.

Only four wholesalers sell fireworks legally in California: Phantom Fireworks, Discount Fireworks Superstore, Fireworks over America, and the U.S. industry leader American Promotional Events, Inc.--which also goes by the names “Red Devil Fireworks”, “Freedom Fireworks”, “Patriot Fireworks”, and “TNT Fireworks.”

Wholesalers have to follow strict guidelines to get their products approved, according to Revell. “The state of California has the most restrictive guidelines in terms of how the product has to be constructed, how it has to perform and the limitations of that performance, and how that product is labeled,” he explained.

Once products are approved, wholesalers distribute them to local stands with seasonal permits. Stands must be licensed by both the California State Fire Marshal’s office and the local jurisdiction in which they are located, according to Revell.

The law says that only veteran, patriotic, welfare, civic betterment, or charitable nonprofits can apply for permits from January 2 through February 15. According to Revell, 99.9% of Fourth of July stands fit that description.

About 3,000 nonprofits purchase seasonal permits every year raising approximately $35 million, according to The California Safety and Education Program. Revell said 360 of those nonprofit organizations operate state-approved fireworks in the greater Sacramento area, and TNT represents 65 to 70% of them.

Where fireworks are sold

Sales in the capital region are also limited to specific times and dates, from noon June 28 through 10 p.m. July 4 in most jurisdictions. But ordinances can vary significantly from one county to another, and in ten communities of the greater Sacramento area fireworks are banned altogether:

  • El Dorado County

  • Unincorporated Placer County

  • Unincorporated Nevada County

  • Grass Valley

  • Davis

  • Granite Bay

  • Auburn

  • Loomis

  • Meadow Vista

  • Colfax

“There are 297 jurisdictions throughout California that allow the sale and use of fireworks on the Fourth of July,” Revell said, “so it’s an opt-in as opposed to an opt-out situation.”

A window for fireworks’ use

When it comes to the consumption of fireworks, the approved time frame is slightly more relaxed than for sales. In most jurisdictions, the law says that fireworks can be possessed, used, displayed or discharged between noon on June 28 and midnight on July 5.

But lighting fireworks on the right day and time is not enough. In order to be legal, fireworks must be “safe and sane,” bearing the California State Fire Marshal seal. The difference between ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ fireworks is simple, Revell said. “In California, no product is approved that either explodes, goes up into the air or performs in an uncontrollable fashion.”

The fines for possessing illegal fireworks are severe, and established according to gross weight. They range from $500 to $50,000 and/or up to one year in jail.

Here are some indicators that the product you purchased is illegal, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives:

  • It resembles a roll of coins with a fuse.

  • It consists of a cardboard tube or oddly shaped item wrapped in brown paper and filled with an explosive material.

  • It is red, silver, or brown in color

  • It may be 1 to 6 inches long and up to an inch or more in diameter.

  • It is sold on the street or out of the back of someone’s vehicle.

But legal doesn’t always mean safe, and the National Safety Council advises to proceed with caution even with safe and sane fireworks. They provide 14 safety tips:

  • Never allow young children to handle fireworks
  • Older children should use them only under close adult supervision
  • Never use fireworks while impaired by drugs or alcohol
  • Anyone using fireworks or standing nearby should wear protective eyewear
  • Never hold lighted fireworks in your hands
  • Never light them indoors
  • Only use them away from people, houses and flammable material
  • Never point or throw fireworks at another person
  • Only light one device at a time and maintain a safe distance after lighting
  • Never ignite devices in a container
  • Do not try to re-light or handle malfunctioning fireworks
  • Soak both spent and unused fireworks in water for a few hours before discarding
  • Keep a bucket of water nearby to fully extinguish fireworks that don’t go off or in case of fire
  • Never use illegal fireworks

Ultimately, the National Safety Council’s advice is to leave “fireworks to the experts” and go see a public display. Public displays of fireworks are only given with the written permission of the county’s Fire Department and under the supervision of a State of California licensed operator.

For detailed information about fireworks-related laws in California, check out Cal Fire’s digital resources and guidelines.

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