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November 26, 2022

Watsonville struggles to quell illegal fireworks

WATSONVILLE—The booming explosions and aerial displays that typically ring in celebratory moments, have become a noisy plague on Watsonville residents who are calling on city government to step up its enforcement of illegal fireworks and possibly outlaw the sale of the ‘safe-and-sane’ variety.

Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra says that this year the thundering pyrotechnics have indeed started earlier and are being fired up with more frequency—sometimes even brazenly during the middle of the day.

But the city has no plans to make changes to its ordinances policing illegal fireworks. It also does not plan to halt the sale of legal fireworks within city limits. Dutra says that their removal would do little to curb illegal fireworks that are putting annoyed residents and their panicking pets on edge.

The sale of ‘safe-and-sane’ fireworks—those that do not explode or leave the ground when ignited—serves as a major fundraiser for more than 20 local nonprofits and youth sports teams in Watsonville, the lone city in Santa Cruz County that allows their sale. Removing that annual income, Dutra says, would be a devastating financial blow for many of those organizations.

The Watsonville City Council has previously discussed how it could crack down on illegal fireworks, but those talks have usually turned ugly. That’s because those debates have wrongly pitted the nonprofits running the fireworks booths against the residents that are fed up with the racket, says former City Councilwoman Trina Coffman-Gomez.

Coffman-Gomez, who termed out of office last year, says that there needs to be more education about the issue, so that residents can ban together to go after the illegal fireworks, rather than try to eliminate the ‘safe-and-sane’ ones. She highlights that many residents do not know that the money the city makes on sales tax from the firework booths pays for overtime costs accumulated by the Watsonville police and fire departments on Fourth of July.

In her last year in office, Coffman-Gomez after an annual report on ‘safe-and-sane’ fireworks passed a motion to further discuss the item. But the city “dropped the ball,” she says, and the item has yet to return to the City Council.

The city has tried to cut back on illegal fireworks by hosting an annual fireworks show at the airport, but even with that event in place Watsonville’s skies still ignite on Independence Day and the weeks leading up to it.

Watsonville Police Department Sgt. Bryan Fuentez agreed with Dutra and Coffman-Gomez that banning all fireworks would not reduce the use of illegal ones. Fuentez lives in another part of the county in which all fireworks are outlawed, and says he still hears illegal fireworks blowing nearly every night.

“No matter where you go, you talk to somebody in Gilroy, someone in Hollister, someone in Morgan Hill, they’re all going to say the same thing: ‘it’s like a war zone out here,’” he said. “That’s everyone’s line, but it’s true. I saw things last year that I never would have seen previously. It was pretty spectacular … but when they’re going off at all hours of the night and then several days before, it’s like, ‘enough already.’”

Fuentez says that WPD—as it does every year—will increase the number of officers available to respond to illegal fireworks calls in the week leading up to the Fourth of July, which this year lands on a Sunday. The Watsonville Fire Department on July 4 will also cruise around the city handing out citations of up to $1,000 per violation.

Dutra says that while increased patrols might lead to more citations being issued on the Fourth of July, that might not be the case on an everyday basis, when perpetrators are more sly about when and how they set them off.

“It might be a waste of money because if they can’t catch them, then they can’t write them up,” he said.

Last month the Santa Cruz County Auto Theft Reductions Enforcement (SCARE) Task Force seized more than 1,100 pounds of illegal fireworks on the outskirts of Watsonville. But the bust was not the result of a lengthy investigation or a tip from a resident. Fuentez says that, to the best of his knowledge, the SCARE team stumbled upon that monstrous pile of fireworks by coincidence—they were investigating that property for a different reason.

“That’s really how we get the big captures,” Fuentez said. 

Everyday enforcement of illegal fireworks is a much different and more difficult task. Typically, when a resident calls in to report that illegal fireworks are being set off, they do not have an exact location of where it was fired from, Fuentez says. The power of some large fireworks will make it feel as if they exploded just a few feet from their home, he adds.

“But those fireworks are probably several blocks away,” he said.

Coffman-Gomez says Watsonville needs to move past that “whack-a-mole” policing of illegal fireworks, and look at what other cities are doing to successfully silence the explosions.

Recently, Pacifica, Redwood City, Sacramento and San Jose turned to a “social host” ordinance, which empowers law enforcement to hand tenants and property owners hefty fines for illegal fireworks set off on their land, regardless of whether they lit the match. But ordinances only do so much, and the root of the issue, says Coffman-Gomez, is the unchecked influx of illegal fireworks pouring into California.

“We’ve tried a sundry of different options [to stop illegal fireworks], but the true discussion that needs to happen is, legislatively, what can we do to better criminalize this as a problem that we have here chronically,” she said.

She’s not the only one urging state lawmakers and law enforcement officials to take action on illegal fireworks. A Los Angeles County Supervisor last month called on the feds to address the issue ahead of the Fourth of July. Her plea to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and U.S. Customs and Border Protection came two months after an illegal stockpile of fireworks exploded in a city just east of Los Angeles, killing two men and causing $3.2 million in damage.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s annual fireworks report from 2019—the latest report available, at least 12 people died while using fireworks that year, and there were an estimated 10,000 injuries associated with fireworks, including roughly 7,300 between June 21 and July 21.

Also troubling, says Dutra, is the potential for wildland fires to spark from the use of illegal fireworks because of the current drought-like conditions throughout Santa Cruz County and the greater state of California. Local Cal Fire officials have said this fire season could be “very active” because of those dry conditions.

“We really need to consider the state of our environment right now—it’s very dry,” Dutra said. “I think we need to be extremely cautious and careful. The people that are thinking about setting them off this year, I would really urge them to think twice and not do it.”

Tony Nuñez
Good Times News Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor of The Pajaronian for five years and three years as Managing Editor. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.


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