News

Unprecedented fireworks explosions frazzle residents

Spree rocks neighborhoods in noisy July 4 prelude

Boxes of used fireworks pile the corner of Bell Street and Lincoln Street in East Palo Alto on June 24. Photo by Sue Dremann.

Each year around July 4, the skies above East Palo Alto resident Maureen Larsson's neighborhood fill with the colorful bursts of large fireworks and the deafening booms of exploding mortars. The nightly sounds, which can go on for weeks before the national holiday, can be heard all over town.

"We've been here a long time and every year it's the same sadly destructive predictable thing: My husband and I are disrupted and stressed by months of explosions. We see at least one fire a year and hear about others caused by fireworks and know people whose property has been destroyed," Larsson said.

"This year the fireworks problem has worsened. It's still June and the social media posts about lost dogs and lost sleep are nonstop. Neighbors who're grappling with COVID, financial challenges and work demands are even more frazzled and there's no relief," she added. "People doing fireworks ... don't care how they impact their neighbors."

Menlo Park residents and Palo Altans who live near East Palo Alto say they are similarly frustrated.

Beth Guislin counted 120 explosions an hour on a recent night, her husband, John, said. It upsets her sleep and their dog is terrified.

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There are also three or four group homes for veterans near the Guislins.

"I can't imagine it's good for them. I feel we need to address it," he said.

The fireworks have already ignited fires, such as a 2-acre blaze in an East Palo Alto field on June 4 that threatened homes and apartments, according to Menlo Park firefighters.

Local police departments say they are responding in force. There are ongoing criminal investigations, East Palo Alto police Chief Albert Pardini said by email.

"The entire patrol division is working to locate and arrest individuals in possession of illegal fireworks in East Palo Alto. I have several investigations in progress, but I can't reveal the details as it would tip off the suspects," he said.

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"There seems to be a pattern of behavior that people walk out of their home, discharge a device and then go back into their home. A few minutes later, a different neighbor does the same thing, almost as if they are trying to have a competition to see who can make the loudest noise or launch the biggest airborne device," Pardini said, noting that the activity is occurring throughout the city.

"Our biggest help has been neighbors calling dispatch or using the tip line to give us a precise location so we can get to the site more quickly," he said.

It's not just the Midpeninsula that's being plagued with people setting off pyrotechnics — it's happening across the country.

New York has had a 426% increase in complaints about fireworks, he said, referencing news reports. The same problems are occurring in Los Angeles and other cities on the West Coast.

And why is it happening?

"It is believed that because of COVID-19: All firework shows are cancelled so people are making their own shows," he said.

Palo Alto police think there's a supply issue at play this year.

"One hypothesis that we've heard, which seems reasonable to us, is that due to cancellations of Fourth of July fireworks shows, there may be an overabundance of professional-grade fireworks available on illegal markets" Janine De la Vega, public affairs manager for the Palo Alto Police Department, stated in an email.

"Note this is purely speculative, but it could explain the significantly louder 'booms' that our residents are reporting now, compared to years past," she said.

Pardini said information suggests people are traveling to other states where it is legal to purchase fireworks. They are then illegally transporting the fireworks back.

Nevada law allows bottle rockets, sky rockets, roman candles, firecrackers, sparklers, missiles, aerial spinners, display shells and other aerial items, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

California prohibits these and other items: Only so-called "safe and sane" fireworks such as small items used on the ground — such as fountains, spinners and snap caps — are allowed in some counties. The "dangerous" fireworks, including bottle rockets and sparklers larger than 10 inches long or one-quarter inch in diameter, are banned.

'There may be an overabundance of professional-grade fireworks available on illegal markets.'

-Janine De la Vega, public affairs manager, Palo Alto Police Department

Under California fireworks laws the possession or transport of illegal explosive devices is a misdemeanor subject to up to six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of a large quantity of fireworks or explosive devices can result in up to three years in state prison and a fine up to $50,000.

Pardini said it's hard to catch violators because of the widespread activity.

"We attempt to track the discharges as they are occurring, but ... as my patrol officers hear or see the devices in the air, it is a challenge to determine which street they originated from," he said.

Palo Alto police haven't been able to verify any reports of fireworks or gunshots going off in Palo Alto.

"From ShotSpotter reports in East Palo Alto and from the observations of our own on-duty officers witnessing the fireworks occurring over East Palo Alto, we are confident that the source of the nightly issues is not in Palo Alto," De la Vega said. "We received one anonymous report over this past weekend that people were shooting fireworks off on the levees near our golf course. Our patrol division has been made aware of that tip and has stepped up patrols in that area as a result," she said.

FIreworks are also being set off in Menlo Park, and police there have seen an increase in complaints about them.

"The hotspots are in varied locations. While we have had a few calls west of El Camino, the bulk of the calls are throughout central Menlo Park and areas east of Middlefield Road and east of Highway 101," spokeswoman Nicole Acker said in an email.

Menlo Park police have not made any arrests nor fined the lawbreakers.

"Officers warn if they make contact with individuals," she said.

Police in all three cities have launched information campaigns. Pardini said East Palo Alto has placed banners at the University Avenue/Donohoe Street and University Avenue/Bay Road intersections to remind people that possession and discharge of fireworks are prohibited. The department has disseminated information in Pardini's weekly newsletter and distributed flyers in English and Spanish.

Palo Alto sent out a message to the community on June 16, which included information about how to report violators and city animal control officers' tips on how to help pets with anxiety.

The city also launched a fireworks education campaign in multiple city departments, providing information on safety and how to report fireworks or gunfire violations. It's best to call the 24-hour dispatch center at 650-329-2413 with an actual location, De la Vega said.

Acker said Menlo Park police have posted on social media and the city's blog, sent notifications and put up electronic sign boards regarding the city's no fireworks laws.

Menlo Park has not specifically coordinated any enforcement efforts with neighboring cities, Acker said. But Pardini said he has been communicating with other police chiefs and the San Mateo County sheriff.

'Considering our officers have to be in the right place at exactly the right time to witness a (fireworks) violation themselves, enforcement is difficult.'

-Albert Pardini, police chief, East Palo Alto

Palo Alto officers have stepped up neighborhood patrols and in some open space areas during evenings as a deterrent, De la Vega said.

So far, the three cities' police chiefs have not pushed for new ordinances to address the illegal fireworks, however.

"A decision about stronger ordinances would be a decision of the council, but the current law makes it very clear it is illegal so it would be up to the council to evaluate whether the section needs to be changed," Pardini said.

Added De la Vega: "As we have had no verified reports of fireworks or gunshots being shot off in Palo Alto, stronger ordinances and fines in our city would have no impact on those in other jurisdictions.

"There are also a number of challenges to enforcement of fireworks laws. In order to make an arrest or to issue a citation, an officer needs to be able to witness the violation or otherwise catch those responsible in possession of fireworks, or alternately, have a witness who can identify the suspect who is willing to sign a private person's arrest.

"When we have very few witnesses overnight (other than aural 'witnesses'), and considering our officers have to be in the right place at exactly the right time to witness a violation themselves, enforcement is difficult."

Larsson said there are no easy answers.

"It's a very difficult problem to solve, preferably requiring a culture shift that doesn't include further gentrification," she said. "We'd like to see an annual meeting with city leaders, first responders, Community Emergency Response Team members, big landlords, neighborhood representatives and other stakeholders to ultimately reduce the usage of fireworks."

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Unprecedented fireworks explosions frazzle residents

Spree rocks neighborhoods in noisy July 4 prelude

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jun 26, 2020, 9:51 am

Each year around July 4, the skies above East Palo Alto resident Maureen Larsson's neighborhood fill with the colorful bursts of large fireworks and the deafening booms of exploding mortars. The nightly sounds, which can go on for weeks before the national holiday, can be heard all over town.

"We've been here a long time and every year it's the same sadly destructive predictable thing: My husband and I are disrupted and stressed by months of explosions. We see at least one fire a year and hear about others caused by fireworks and know people whose property has been destroyed," Larsson said.

"This year the fireworks problem has worsened. It's still June and the social media posts about lost dogs and lost sleep are nonstop. Neighbors who're grappling with COVID, financial challenges and work demands are even more frazzled and there's no relief," she added. "People doing fireworks ... don't care how they impact their neighbors."

Menlo Park residents and Palo Altans who live near East Palo Alto say they are similarly frustrated.

Beth Guislin counted 120 explosions an hour on a recent night, her husband, John, said. It upsets her sleep and their dog is terrified.

There are also three or four group homes for veterans near the Guislins.

"I can't imagine it's good for them. I feel we need to address it," he said.

The fireworks have already ignited fires, such as a 2-acre blaze in an East Palo Alto field on June 4 that threatened homes and apartments, according to Menlo Park firefighters.

Local police departments say they are responding in force. There are ongoing criminal investigations, East Palo Alto police Chief Albert Pardini said by email.

"The entire patrol division is working to locate and arrest individuals in possession of illegal fireworks in East Palo Alto. I have several investigations in progress, but I can't reveal the details as it would tip off the suspects," he said.

"There seems to be a pattern of behavior that people walk out of their home, discharge a device and then go back into their home. A few minutes later, a different neighbor does the same thing, almost as if they are trying to have a competition to see who can make the loudest noise or launch the biggest airborne device," Pardini said, noting that the activity is occurring throughout the city.

"Our biggest help has been neighbors calling dispatch or using the tip line to give us a precise location so we can get to the site more quickly," he said.

It's not just the Midpeninsula that's being plagued with people setting off pyrotechnics — it's happening across the country.

New York has had a 426% increase in complaints about fireworks, he said, referencing news reports. The same problems are occurring in Los Angeles and other cities on the West Coast.

And why is it happening?

"It is believed that because of COVID-19: All firework shows are cancelled so people are making their own shows," he said.

Palo Alto police think there's a supply issue at play this year.

"One hypothesis that we've heard, which seems reasonable to us, is that due to cancellations of Fourth of July fireworks shows, there may be an overabundance of professional-grade fireworks available on illegal markets" Janine De la Vega, public affairs manager for the Palo Alto Police Department, stated in an email.

"Note this is purely speculative, but it could explain the significantly louder 'booms' that our residents are reporting now, compared to years past," she said.

Pardini said information suggests people are traveling to other states where it is legal to purchase fireworks. They are then illegally transporting the fireworks back.

Nevada law allows bottle rockets, sky rockets, roman candles, firecrackers, sparklers, missiles, aerial spinners, display shells and other aerial items, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

California prohibits these and other items: Only so-called "safe and sane" fireworks such as small items used on the ground — such as fountains, spinners and snap caps — are allowed in some counties. The "dangerous" fireworks, including bottle rockets and sparklers larger than 10 inches long or one-quarter inch in diameter, are banned.

Under California fireworks laws the possession or transport of illegal explosive devices is a misdemeanor subject to up to six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of a large quantity of fireworks or explosive devices can result in up to three years in state prison and a fine up to $50,000.

Pardini said it's hard to catch violators because of the widespread activity.

"We attempt to track the discharges as they are occurring, but ... as my patrol officers hear or see the devices in the air, it is a challenge to determine which street they originated from," he said.

Palo Alto police haven't been able to verify any reports of fireworks or gunshots going off in Palo Alto.

"From ShotSpotter reports in East Palo Alto and from the observations of our own on-duty officers witnessing the fireworks occurring over East Palo Alto, we are confident that the source of the nightly issues is not in Palo Alto," De la Vega said. "We received one anonymous report over this past weekend that people were shooting fireworks off on the levees near our golf course. Our patrol division has been made aware of that tip and has stepped up patrols in that area as a result," she said.

FIreworks are also being set off in Menlo Park, and police there have seen an increase in complaints about them.

"The hotspots are in varied locations. While we have had a few calls west of El Camino, the bulk of the calls are throughout central Menlo Park and areas east of Middlefield Road and east of Highway 101," spokeswoman Nicole Acker said in an email.

Menlo Park police have not made any arrests nor fined the lawbreakers.

"Officers warn if they make contact with individuals," she said.

Police in all three cities have launched information campaigns. Pardini said East Palo Alto has placed banners at the University Avenue/Donohoe Street and University Avenue/Bay Road intersections to remind people that possession and discharge of fireworks are prohibited. The department has disseminated information in Pardini's weekly newsletter and distributed flyers in English and Spanish.

Palo Alto sent out a message to the community on June 16, which included information about how to report violators and city animal control officers' tips on how to help pets with anxiety.

The city also launched a fireworks education campaign in multiple city departments, providing information on safety and how to report fireworks or gunfire violations. It's best to call the 24-hour dispatch center at 650-329-2413 with an actual location, De la Vega said.

Acker said Menlo Park police have posted on social media and the city's blog, sent notifications and put up electronic sign boards regarding the city's no fireworks laws.

Menlo Park has not specifically coordinated any enforcement efforts with neighboring cities, Acker said. But Pardini said he has been communicating with other police chiefs and the San Mateo County sheriff.

Palo Alto officers have stepped up neighborhood patrols and in some open space areas during evenings as a deterrent, De la Vega said.

So far, the three cities' police chiefs have not pushed for new ordinances to address the illegal fireworks, however.

"A decision about stronger ordinances would be a decision of the council, but the current law makes it very clear it is illegal so it would be up to the council to evaluate whether the section needs to be changed," Pardini said.

Added De la Vega: "As we have had no verified reports of fireworks or gunshots being shot off in Palo Alto, stronger ordinances and fines in our city would have no impact on those in other jurisdictions.

"There are also a number of challenges to enforcement of fireworks laws. In order to make an arrest or to issue a citation, an officer needs to be able to witness the violation or otherwise catch those responsible in possession of fireworks, or alternately, have a witness who can identify the suspect who is willing to sign a private person's arrest.

"When we have very few witnesses overnight (other than aural 'witnesses'), and considering our officers have to be in the right place at exactly the right time to witness a violation themselves, enforcement is difficult."

Larsson said there are no easy answers.

"It's a very difficult problem to solve, preferably requiring a culture shift that doesn't include further gentrification," she said. "We'd like to see an annual meeting with city leaders, first responders, Community Emergency Response Team members, big landlords, neighborhood representatives and other stakeholders to ultimately reduce the usage of fireworks."

Comments

don't enforce
Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 26, 2020 at 1:46 pm
don't enforce, Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 26, 2020 at 1:46 pm
2 people like this

The police are the bad guys no matter what so why try?. This is a low level crime. The new normal is evolving. I suggest neighbors talk to their neighbors and tell them to knock it off. The fire department should have roving patrols to handle this fire danger and life safety. No one is blowing each other up so police are not needed. I repeat...talk to your neighbor. no one is going to do your dirty work. don't call 911 and be anonymous stand for something. Seems like this is the perfect training wheels


whatever
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 26, 2020 at 3:09 pm
whatever, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 26, 2020 at 3:09 pm
2 people like this

Don't Enforce
First you say this a low level crime so the police shouldn't bother. Then you say it's a problem of fire danger and life safety. Which is it Don't Enforce? You can't have it both ways.
The fire danger is tantamount to arson and the life safety could result in manslaughter or murder charges, not to mention the victims' critical burns, anxiety, loss of limbs and death. I say go after the culprits hard, then hit them with big fines, public service and jail time. Don't Enforce, if someone sets off illegal fire works which destroy your home you can pat them on the back.


Bemused
Menlo Park: other
on Jun 26, 2020 at 3:38 pm
Bemused, Menlo Park: other
on Jun 26, 2020 at 3:38 pm
4 people like this

Whatever: I suspect Don't Enforce's irony may have been a bit too subtle for some to pick up on, but it is there if you look closely. Self-policing is hard to do, but is inherent in the broadly-advocated call for "defunding" to keep the potential for escalation to a minimum. I think Whatever is suggesting this might be an opportunity to try it out.


Brian
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 3, 2020 at 2:02 pm
Brian, Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jul 3, 2020 at 2:02 pm
Like this comment

It can not be that hard to identify where the fireworks are being set up and apprehend the people. Why not use our over-budgeted Fire Department and their Drone to fly over the area any evening and find the places setting them off and capture footage of it. Then the police can respond without sirens and make some arrests and confiscate fireworks. It does pose a serious fire threat so they would be justified in helping out.


Peter Carpenter
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 3, 2020 at 4:20 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jul 3, 2020 at 4:20 pm
2 people like this

The Fire District's Drone Policy quite properly prohibits their drones being used for law enforcement purposes.


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