California is burning. Maybe it’s time to ban fireworks on the Fourth of July

See one of the largest seizures of illegal fireworks in California history

A three-year investigation resulted in the seizure of 49,000 pounds of illegal fireworks in California, one of the largest amounts in state history according to Cal Fire.
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A three-year investigation resulted in the seizure of 49,000 pounds of illegal fireworks in California, one of the largest amounts in state history according to Cal Fire.

This editorial was published on July 2, 2018.

It has become a kind of July tradition: Counting the ways in which California’s fire season is now more dangerous.

Every summer around this time, the red flags grow redder: the dry air, the triple-digit heat, the dying trees in the wilderness, the chaparral rattling in the foothills. Every summer around this time, some fiery apocalypse erupts somewhere in the state as if to drive home the message.

And yet every summer around this time, Californians respond the same way: Surrounded by fire hazards, we set off a bunch of fireworks.

Not to dampen patriotic enthusiasm as Independence Day approaches, but isn’t it time this state brought its July 4 observances into the climate-changed 21st century?

Yes, fireworks are fun. Yes, some nonprofits benefit from their sale. Yes, fireworks companies are a lobbying force. And yes, we have come to associate the rocket’s red glare with Independence Day.

But there are lots of ways to have fun and donate to nonprofits and make a living in the state Capitol. And fireworks make less and less sense as California grows more and more fire prone.

Even with this state’s many fireworks regulations, each summer reminds anew that it makes no sense to celebrate with explosives in a place known for its outsized fire risk.

Napa and Sonoma counties, for example, just spent most of the weekend under a National Weather Service red flag warning. In Lake County, the Pawnee Fire has been burning for a week now. More than 40,000 acres of Yolo County are blazing. Survivors of the October wine country fires are asking themselves this week whether fireworks are worth the traumatic flashbacks.

In June 2018, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimott issued a statement reminding that about half the July 4 fires nationally are started by fireworks, and that the “safe and sane” fireworks sold legally in California can still be a hazard if they aren’t used correctly.

Even the organized public fireworks displays put on by professionals aren’t foolproof. Remember the 2015 Cal Expo mishap, when the Sacramento region’s largest fireworks show ended with a misfired mortar, a shower of sparks and two brush fires?

Fire risk, by the way, isn’t the only drawback. In the Central Valley, where the topography can render the air stagnant, July 4 fireworks routinely cause particle pollution to spike to four or five times the federal health standards. Emergency rooms fill with the victims of illegal fireworks explosions. Pets suffer terribly from the noise, and because fireworks are a form of hazardous waste, disposal is expensive.

It’s time to align California’s laws with the modern costs and benefits of celebrations that involve explosives. If we can’t bring ourselves to ban fireworks entirely during our now nearly year-round fire season, we should at least outlaw them during the times of year and/or weather conditions in which they’re especially hazardous.

Some counties, including El Dorado and Shasta, follow Massachusetts’ example, and ban consumer fireworks entirely. Perhaps Yolo County authorities will consider following suit after this week’s inferno.

Traditions are nice, but times change, and these times aren’t getting any more fireproof. The rites of summer shouldn’t include running for your life on the Fourth of July.

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