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Illegal fireworks already going off

Severe drought making safety officials nervous

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Illegal fireworks already going off

Cases of dangerous fireworks stacked for transport by Manteca Police Officer David Bright represent less than half the total inventory found in a Manteca neighborhood off of South Powers Avenue las...

GLENN KAHL/Bulletin file photo

POSTED June 13, 2014 1:36 a.m.

The BOOM! and POW! that pierce the still of the evening, rattling windows and triggering a chorus of howls and car alarms, signal not the start of summer but the fireworks season.

In less than a month, the City of Manteca will turn its gaze toward the skies above Big League Dreams for a Fourth of July fireworks display laced with pageantry, community fun and above all else, safety. 

Members of the Manteca Police and Fire departments can’t say the same about the illegal displays that have already begun to shake neighborhoods and stir up concern. 

The business of illegal fireworks isn’t contained to just the first few months of summer. It’s a year-round venture characterized by smuggling and brazen sales tactics, say city and county officials, and the combustible climate created by a severe drought makes these tenuous times.

Just so there are no illusions, Sgt. Gregg Beall, a three-year member of the Manteca Bomb Squad and a member of the county coalition, has offered a fair warning: There is no difference between an illegal firework, such as mortars, Roman candles and bottle rockets, and say a pipe bomb, as defined by the law.

“The section that covers these dangerous fireworks it’s the same section that covers destructive devices. It’s the same charge for having an M-80 as it is a pipe bomb,” Beall said. “It’s a felony to have those things.

“We’re going to take a strong stance, especially with aerials and things like that,” he added. “We want everyone to have a safe and happy Fourth, but we need people to do it in a safe and responsible way.”

A year ago, Beall and his partner, Detective Mike Keener, assisted a Street Crimes unit with one of the city’s largest illegal fireworks seizures in recent memory. That morning, Manteca Police recovered nearly 2,000 pounds of illegal fireworks from a house that had been turned into a makeshift store.

The suspect Oscar Robledo had quite the selection, too. There were mortars, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and M-80s and M-1000s, generic terms for explosives that contain more than 500 milligrams of gun powder. 

There were enough explosives in that house, Beall said, to knock it off its foundation. “If that house had gone up, that house would have been leveled,” he said, noting that Robledo also had a teenager in the home. 

“In our county and our city, everything that is marked safe and sane is legal,” Beall said. “We’re talking about your fountains and your sparklers. Basically anything you can buy at the kiosks around town.

“It’s the things that people bring in from Idaho and Nevada; it’s the things that leave the ground are going to be illegal. Those are mortars, and we see those pretty consistently this time of year.”

The proliferation of illegal fireworks literally moves with the speed of traffic. 

Illegal fireworks are brought into San Joaquin County and the City of Manteca by truck and travel. One Manteca Police officer said it’s not uncommon for a long-haul truck driver to visit a state that permits the sale of illegal fireworks and bring back a cache for use or sale.

Beall said others will make the relatively short drive into Reno, Nev., where the sale of bottle rockets, sky rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers is legal. Other states that sell those four varieties without a permit are: Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, North Dakota and South Dakota. Idaho requires a permit to purchase all four types of illegal fireworks, according to U.S. Fireworks. 

“In the five years since I’ve been fire marshal, we have seen an increase in the amount of illegal fireworks,” said Lantz Rey. 

With that kind of accessibility, fire and police remain on high alert throughout the year. Beall and Keener have assisted the other police departments with fireworks recovery in Linden and Lodi, specifically. Rey said Manteca Fire will staff an additional engine for the Fourth.

During these early summer months, when the weather is warm and the vegetation is dry, their senses are heightened.

“We come across these all year long. May and June is when we start to really see them, because people bring them in from out of state to start selling or use them for the Fourth,” Beall said. 

“People will make that drive. Reno is only 2 ½ hours away. It’s not that tough,” he later added. “Some people can make a pretty good amount of money on selling this stuff. If someone makes a trip, maybe they stop off and pick up mortar and some shells and their Fourth of July is set.”

Or is it?

Nothing ruins a holiday celebration like a trip to the emergency room or fire. 

Four years ago, David Crockett Sr. and his home were the victims of an illegal firework mishap. 

Bottle rockets launched from a neighboring yard set Crockett’s 20-foot tall junipers ablaze, causing approximately $22,000 worth of damage to his Raymus Village home. The heat damaged the liner of the in-ground pool and caused the paint on the back of the house to bubble. Smoke filled the inside of Crockett’s home.

No suspects have been identified in the fire, but the trigger was clear: Illegal fireworks.

“Fireworks cause more injuries than most other explosives in the U.S. They can be dangerous, especially mortars,” Beall said. “It’s an explosive charge and it’s made to go off in the air. If you’re standing near it, you’ll get messed up pretty good.

“… Nothing ruins your Fourth worse than setting your neighbor’s house on fire or blowing off your hand. These things are dangerous.”

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