As luck would have it, minutes after the City Council on Tuesday debated what to do about Manteca’s growing pyrotechnic pandemic someone shot off illegal fireworks underscoring Mayor Ben Cantu’s assertion that the situation is out of control.
Cantu — in frustration — suggested the city place a $2,500 bounty on those who drive across state lines or use the Internet to acquire fireworks that are outlawed in California and resell them in Manteca.
The mayor expressed that he believed illegal fireworks should be treated like drugs where law enforcement concentrates on going after the dealers instead of the users to make the biggest dent.
Councilman Dave Breitenbucher disagreed. He noted that based on his 30 years with the Manteca Fire Department most people buy their own illegal fireworks and don’t resell them or else visiting friends or relatives bring them into Manteca from out of state without realizing they are illegal in California.
Breitenbucher noted big busts such as one several years ago with an individual being arrested for having 14,000 pounds of illegal fireworks for sale are few and far between. The individual in that case received an 11-month jail term and $66,000 fine.
Instead Breitenbucher is convinced the city needs to step up its efforts to go after those that use illegal fireworks — defined primarily as any pyrotechnic device that goes airborne or moves — with fines.
What the council ended up doing was ask staff to come back with several possible ways to chip away at a problem that started a month before the Fourth of July and is still continuing.
*Jacking up fines for those caught using illegal fireworks from $1,000 once city costs are added to a significantly higher price with council members noting some states slap fines as high as $5,000 on offenders.
*Exploring using drones for mapping areas where illegal fireworks are being launched that can be used to fine individuals — renters or owner occupied — that control property
Councilman Gary Singh expressed support of an approach that would offer sizeable rewards to people turning in those that launch illegal fireworks.
Breitenbucher suggested using felony laws covering arson against the users of illegal fireworks that start fires or child endangerment charges if they are used around minors in a bid to create stiffer penalties.
After even more education was suggested as another potential fix, City Attorney John Brinton said the problem is many users of illegal fireworks are convinced they have the right to use them despite it being against the law in California just like those that are convinced they have the right to ignore a lawful order requiring face masks under specific situations in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fire Chief Kyle Shipherd, after explaining how his department was overwhelmed with fire calls on the Fourth of July, suggested patrols looking for illegal fireworks could start as much as two weeks before Independence Day instead of just a few days beforehand. Singh noted fireworks started going off nightly at the start of June this year.
Shipherd noted that the Fourth of July falling on a Saturday this year along with the pandemic and countrywide unrest led to more illegal fireworks than usual being launched nationwide.
All five fire stations were staffed plus the department had a sixth engine on duty on the Fourth of July. They responded to 32 fires caused by illegal and legal fireworks, up from 21 in 2019.
Shipherd said they were going to fire calls non-stop with engines never returning to stations during the shift.
At the same time Manteca Police handled 90 calls for service between 6 p.m. and midnight on the holiday with half of those fireworks related.
Due to the increase in fires and police calls that were non-fireworks related, proactive patrols for fireworks where police knew where the hot spots were based on previous years’ complaints and were able to use GPS technology to issue citations was greatly diminished.
In the 45 fireworks calls officers responded to during that three-hour period, they ran into the same old problem prior to the Nail ‘Em App and the social host ordinance was put in place to use tech to snag illegal fireworks users. They’d arrive on scene of the complaints and no illegal fireworks were being launched.
Acting Police Chief Mike Aguilar said officers were frustrated as well. On top of that when they made contact with people at addresses they were given — often from multiple callers — they were accused of harassing them.
Cantu noted that it might be difficult to do much of anything to make much of a dent.
The mayor brought the issue up after receiving steady complaints the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July concerning the loud booms, rattled pets, and shaking windows.
Cantu described the actual Fourth of July as being like “World War III.”
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email dwyatt@email@example.com