Illegal fireworks fall as fines shoot up

Visalia Fire Department said use of illegal fireworks was down by one-third as fines topped a quarter of a million dollars

VISALIA – It looks like Visalia may be slowly turning the tide in the war against illegal fireworks, but the city still felt like a warzone, councilmembers said.

“It’s a real nuisance, especially having young kids,” Councilmember Brian Poochigian said. “They wake up all night because it sounds like a bomb going off outside their window.”

The Visalia Fire Department had another busy firework season from mid-June through the Fourth of July holiday. Fire Marshal Corbin Reed said even before legal fireworks could be sold within the city on June 29, the department cited five people for illegal sales of fireworks, a fine of $4,000, and cited two people for possession of dangerous fireworks, a fine of $2,000. Not only did the prevention effort result in $24,000 in fines, Reed said it could lead to fines in surrounding cities and counties where those individuals may have also sold illegal fireworks.

Reed said units comprised of a fire department staff member and a police officer supported by a geographic information systems (GIS) analyst began patrolling in mid-June through midnight on July 4. The patrols targeted high use areas identified by analyzing complaint data from last year’s call center. In addition to the patrols, the city’s reopened its fireworks call center out of the Emergency Operation Center. Between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and midnight on the nights of July 3 and July 4, the call center fielded 408 calls to relay information to the patrol units and prevent 9-1-1 from being overwhelmed with emergency dispatches.

Reports of illegal fireworks use during the month of June were approximately 50% lower than 2020. Year to date, calls specific to illegal fireworks use are approximately 33% lower than the same time frame in 2020.

“Although some community members have called in stating that use seems to have increased in their neighborhoods, we have also received calls from community members stating that use was noticeably down in their areas,” Reed said.

Citations for illegal fireworks peaked in 2020 but 2021 was still 35% higher than 2018 and 2019. The most citations and highest volume of complaints happened along North Mooney Boulevard between Houston Avenue and Riggin Avenue and along Court Street north of Oval Park and just south of Highway 198. In the end, the patrol units issued 114 citations for possession and five citations for sales totaling $257,000.

Reed said higher fines, as well as targeted prevention and enforcement efforts, are likely the reasons less people were caught using illegal fireworks this year. On April 19, the council unanimously approved heftier fines for illegal fireworks, doubling the first offense from $1,000 to $2,000 and adding $1,000 on top of the current fines for second and third offenses bringing them to $3,000 and $4,000, respectively. Any violation after a third fine would be an additional $4,000 fine. The council also approved a $4,000 fine for sales of illegal fireworks, regardless of if it is a first or subsequent violation.

The fines are levied against the property owner of a rental unit if the renters are unable or unwilling to pay the fine. Local realtor Brad Maaske called in “grossly unfair” that a property owner, not the person responsible for setting off the fireworks, would be liable when they have no control over what their renters do.

“It doesn’t look very fair to me,” Maaske said.

Councilmember Brett Taylor agreed noting about half of Visalia’s population are renters. He asked what if any recourse the property owner had in that scenario.

Since those setting off illegal fireworks must be caught in the act, Visalia Fire Chief Dan Griswold said the property owner can come down to the fire department and see video evidence. If tenants refuse to provide identification once the fire department arrives, Griswold said a landlord can identify the renters and the citation can be reissued to the tenant. Reed said there is a process allowing the tenants, at the encouragement of the landlord, to come down and accept responsibility for the citation.

“Our only means of correcting the violation is by citing the property owner, unfortunately, on the night of when tenants are refusing to provide identification,” Reed said. “They can come in an appeal it after they’ve accepted responsibility for it.”

Louis Linney, general manager of TNT Fireworks in Fresno, applauded the city for its prevention efforts, unique patrol teams and innovative strategy of using GIS tracking of prior year complaints and citations to predict what parts of the city they should patrol.

“Let’s face it, people know what’s illegal, they’re doing it because they don’t think they’re going to get caught,” Linney said. “It’s a really, really tough situation that they’re facing. They’re doing a great job on it.”

Councilmember Greg Collins asked Linney where illegal fireworks were coming from. Linney said most of the illegal fireworks in California are purchased legally in Nevada. He said in Pahrump, Nevada, located east of Tulare County just beyond the California border, is known for its big box stores of fireworks that are legal in many states but illegal in California.

“Anyone can buy and you have to just sign a letter of affidavit that you’re taking it out of their city within 24 hours,” Linney said.

Linney said his company is the largest importer of consumer fireworks in the country, and has been working on legislation that would allow them to track containers traveling from China for illegal fireworks.

“We have tried to introduce legislation that would allow us to place trackers, right on the containers coming out of China to find out where they are and where they’re not going,” Linney said. “We have not been successful in that.”

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