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Lathrop planning enforce laws on illegal fireworks

By the end of the month, Lathrop’s streets will be awash in bright showers of sparks and colors from safe-and-sane fireworks that are sold to benefit a host of local non-profits the week leading up Fourth of July. 

And first responders are already gearing up for the crush of phone calls about illegal aerial fireworks that have come to dominate the discussion around America’s birthday as law enforcement tries to choke off the supply of the incredible but highly-dangerous pastime. 

After the City of Lathrop took a hardline stance against illegal fireworks several years ago – one of the first city in South San Joaquin County to aggressively pursue those who broke the law by having the City Attorney prosecute the cases rather than the District Attorney’s office which had been relatively hands-off up to that point – a number of other neighboring communities have followed suit. Now, with a coalition of every law enforcement and fire agency in the county working together to stamp out the problem and the DA’s office dedicating resources to prosecute offenders, it has become a wait and see game whether the tough stance will make a difference during the week leading up to the holiday. 

And this might be a perilous year when it comes to fires that are started by aerial fireworks that drift away. 

After a number of fires in recent years that were attributed to bottle rockets and mortar shells landing in dry fields – which were exacerbated by drought conditions – California has since experienced multiple winters where water was more plentiful.

Just last month a late-spring storm rocked Northern California and refilled an already-record snowpack to ensure that reservoirs will be stocked for the summer and then some, but that same storm also provided the perfect growth opportunity for the kinds of fire fuels that keep people like Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neely up at night. 

“After we started our weed abatement in April and issued notices to people to cut their nuisance weeds, we had to regroup since a lot of that stuff has grown back now and requires additional inspections,” Neely said. “Stuff that was cleared out that we didn’t cite is now citable and needs to be abated, and all of that becomes a hazard. 

“We’ve had a couple of grass fires already this year, but nothing that the crews couldn’t handle by themselves. We’re hoping it stays that way.”

Neely has been at the forefront of the push towards stricter regulations and punishment for violating Lathrop’s fireworks ordinance after a structure fire several years ago was determined to be have been caused by illegal fireworks, as were several grass fires that could have impacted residential structures. Injuries have also been reported as a result of the illegal modification of fireworks, such as pinching safe-and-sane fireworks with a hammer in order to make them explode. 

While he said he doesn’t have a problem with the safe-and-sane fireworks per se, they have provided a cover for those who use the illegal ones in recent years and offenders have only become bolder in their approach – with one group two years ago even going so far as to throw lit fireworks at Neely’s vehicle when he tried to cite them for violating the law. 

This year a joint operation between the Lathrop Manteca Fire District and Lathrop Police Services where a police officer and firefighter will be out looking to enforce the law will hopefully cut down on rule breakers as Lathrop’s “host” ordinance – which allows for a citation to be issued to the homeowners where illegal fireworks are being fired fire – gives responders more options for enforcement. 

But if that doesn’t work, Neely said, it may be time to rethink whether the safe-and-sane fireworks are worth having at all.

“They’re fine as long as they’re used as directed and they aren’t modified or being thrown up in the air,” Neely said of the commercial fireworks available at city-sponsored stands. “It’s the improper use of safe-and-sane fireworks that becomes a problem. 

“But if we can’t get control of this – we’re going to have to look at alternative options. If we can’t get the public to properly use fireworks, we’re going to have look at things like possibly trying to persuade the city to eliminate safe and sane fireworks.”

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.