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Fire crews brace for bad July Fourth

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POSTED June 11, 2014 1:52 a.m.

The first mortar shell – the type of aerial fireworks similar to the ones you see at professional pyrotechnic displays – that’s fired after 9 p.m. on a given street in East Stockton will be worth a set amount of money. 

The second mortar shell in the sequence will be worth another amount. The third another. 

And if you happen to be in the area and plugged in on Craigslist, you just might be able to order a set number of each in time for the Fourth of July – just the latest way that the sale of illegal fireworks has made itself prevalent and widespread. 

Despite growing enforcement and the wide adoption of the sale of safe-and-sane fireworks by communities throughout the county, it’s the illegal fireworks – those that when fired rocket into the sky and those that explode when thrown into the ground – that worry local fire administrators. 

Especially this year. 

Ripon Consolidated Fire District Chief Dennis Bitters said that the conditions are absolutely perfect for the sorts of grass fires that spread out of control. Early spring rain helped the grass grow taller than normal which, when combined for drought conditions, provides the perfect fuel for mortar embers or a hot bottle rocket that carries with the breeze. 

Breezes only make matters worse. 

Last year Bitters said that the Stockton Fire Department had its hands full when it had to battle a blaze on July 4 at a recycling plant that was started by aerial fireworks – catching paper on fire and sending burning embers high into the night sky. Some of those embers, he said, carried from I-5 near San Joaquin General Hospital all the way out near the Stockton Airport, starting spot fires in the dry brush. 

The distance the embers traveled was more than a mile. 

“Conditions are as bad as they can be,” Bitters said. “We have winds that start in the afternoon and they don’t die down until late in the evening, and when you’re talking about grass fires they tend to spread with the wind and spot and travel very quickly. 

“Safe-and-sane fireworks, when they’re used properly and in accordance with their labels, aren’t as much of a concern as those that people fire off into the air and those that people buy legally and then alter in order make them blow up. That’s when we really start to run into problems.”

Even the most basic fireworks – the sparklers that you’ll find showering the sky on the week leading up to the holiday – can be a problem. Bitters said people do light them off in ways and manners in which they were not intended, like them putting them on boards between a pair of ladders so that they get more of an aerial show. 

People can actually be cited for doing so, he said, although actually catching those responsible can be a unique beast all by itself. 

“We get fires every year from fireworks, but a lot of the time we don’t have the resources available to investigate them to determine the actual cause. Unless there was a significant dollar loss or injuries that we need to chronicle for prosecution, we put them out and move on to the next one. That’s just the way it is.”

The holiday also means spending money that most of the time districts could better use elsewhere. 

On July 4, Bitters said that the department will be part of a cooperative response unit that will be staged in two locations – one at Highway 99 and Arch Road and the other at I-5 and Highway 12. One will allow units to respond to multiple-alarm fires in the northern part of the county while the other can tackle the south. 

On top of that, every department, he said, will be fully staffed that night and out patrolling neighborhoods – meaning that overtime will be accumulating. 

There’s no reimbursement for such a practice. That money comes straight out of the operating fund. 

“That’s just not something that people think about when they set out to do things. They don’t think that the stupid thing that they’re about to do is going to cost everybody else money,” Bitters said. “And it does. Whether it’s people out partying on a beach and somebody drowns, and they do, or people out lighting bottle rockets and they catch something on fire – and they do – it all ends up coming back to the taxpayer. 

“Until we get a cooperative effort, and that means the help of the public, the problem simply isn’t going to go away.” 

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