Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | December 1, 2003

Fireworks in December

It seems odd to be writing about fireworks in December, but I’m happy the topic has resurfaced in Gilroy. I was glad to see the compromise plan on fireworks sales put forth by Gilroy Fire Chief Jeff Clet. After a hellacious Fourth of July 2003, it was clear that something had to change.

On Independence Day this year, Gilroy firefighters were overwhelmed by calls for service. In one 10-hour period, The Dispatch reported, the Gilroy Fire Department responded to nine fires, the usual load for a month. Two of those fires burned structures, the other seven burned vegetation. At least one of the fires – one that burned an apartment causing $125,000 in damage – was started by the legal, ‘safe and sane’ fireworks that were being used properly, in accordance with fireworks safety precautions.

The July 4 fireworks mayhem prompted City Councilman Bob Dillon to call for a total ban on fireworks. While I understand fireworks ban opponents’ objection – you’re punishing the people who are using the ‘safe and sane’ fireworks legally – I also understand that a total ban would make firefighters’ jobs a lot easier. How? Because if there is a total ban, it removes the background noise of legal ‘safe and sane’ fireworks. Anything exploding is illegal, and firefighters no longer have to sort out the good fireworks from the bad ones.

In a region such as ours that is tinder-dry around the Fourth of July, no fireworks make a lot of sense – so much sense that every other community in Santa Clara County has banned the use of any fireworks, even the so-called ‘safe and sane’ variety.

Allowing the sale of ‘safe and sane’ fireworks costs the city money, a luxury it may not be able to afford in these tight economic times, especially as it faces further cuts from Sacramento.

Geoff Cady, the GFD’s fire analyst, estimated allowing the sale of ‘safe and sane’ fireworks cost taxpayers $10,000 in 2003. That’s because although the city earned $7,375 in permit fees and grants from the sale of fireworks, it spent about $18,000 in enforcement, staff time to issue permits, cost of fireworks education materials, booth inspections and other fireworks-related expenses.

I’ll bet that doesn’t include staff time spent coming up with the compromise proposal and then pitching it to City Council.

There are many charitable groups that rely on fireworks sales to fund their programs each year, and they protested loudly when a total ban was proposed. I note that all throughout Santa Clara County, charitable and community groups are able to support their programs without selling fireworks.

After the ashes settled and city leaders began to review the July 4 fireworks debacle, the debate turned nasty. Some chicken-livered fireworks freak sent anonymous threatening letters laced with foul language to several people who advocated a fireworks ban.

Despite the hotheaded rhetoric that has surrounded the issue, Clet has crafted a compromise fireworks proposal:

• Increased education on proper use of fireworks
• Additional fire equipment and firefighters on duty on July 4
• Increased enforcement, including a telephone hotline
• A 7.3 percent permit fee increase for fireworks wholesalers to pay for the programs

Representatives of the charities that sell fireworks each year are already criticizing the plan because the permit fee increase might reduce their profits.

“I think it’s a goofy system,” Jeff Orth, who helps Gilroy cheerleading squads raise funds, told reporter Eric Leins. “What it does is make the people who are doing things right (buying legal fireworks) foot the bill for those doing it wrong (using illegal fireworks).”

I have two responses to that. First, a 7.3 percent permit fee hike cuts into fireworks sales profits a whole heck of a lot less than a total fireworks ban would. Second, it’s not uncommon for taxes on items – say alcohol – to support programs for people who can’t manage to use them responsibly. It’s not goofy, it’s life.

So my advice for all the groups involved in fundraising by selling fireworks is to support this plan – and hope it works. Gilroy needs Independence Day 2004 to be a lot calmer and less expensive for the Gilroy taxpayers than Independence Day 2003 was.

If City Council fails to adopt this plan, or the plan fails to reduce fireworks-related problems, the alternative is likely to be no fireworks sales at all in a few short years.

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