Fireworks over Aptos
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

When are we going to outgrow fireworks?

As we head into the first Fourth of July celebration since the traumatic CZU fires ravaged Santa Cruz County, resentment against illegal fireworks is at all-time high. Can we celebrate the nation’s birthday without “bombs bursting in air”?

One of these days — and I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already — one of those hyper-partisan trolls who profits from enflaming culture war narratives is going to neatly package, for maximum faux-outrage, a “War on Fireworks.”

After all, fireworks are an American tradition, deeply rooted in expressions of patriotism, even featured prominently in the national anthem. Fireworks are so entwined with celebrations of the Fourth of July that the two are functionally inseparable.

But the tide is clearly going out on the popularity, even the tolerance, of fireworks. This weekend marks the first Independence Day celebration since the ruinous CZU fire catastrophe last summer, and if resentment against illegal fireworks was high before 2020, it’s absolutely stratospheric now, especially in California.

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If we’re not there already, we might be fast approaching the tipping point when a critical mass of people just say, enough with the fireworks. We’re living in a post-fireworks world, at least in the West. Maybe we should start behaving like it.

Many kinds of fireworks are already illegal throughout California. In Santa Cruz County, the sale and use of all fireworks are illegal except within the city of Watsonville (where they are sold in booths that pop up across town every year in the last week of June) and the city of Capitola (which tolerates the use but not the sale of fireworks). Within those municipalities, only so-called “safe and sane” fireworks are legal and only on private property.

“Safe and sane” is an official designation from the office of the state fire marshal that covers a wide variety of permissible fireworks. But nothing that explodes like a firecracker, or launches into the air like a bottle rocket, is legal, except by licensed vendors. The means generally if you hear something that explodes or see something in the sky, you’re either (1) at Disneyland, congrats on that, or (2) witnessing illegal fireworks.

Yes, of course, it’s possible to use safe and sane fireworks responsibly. But consider two salient facts about the use of fireworks in 2021: First, CalFire usually gets more calls for reported fires on the Fourth of July than any other single day of the year. Second, fuel moisture levels in vegetation locally are, according to someone I spoke to from CalFire, as low as you would expect much later in the summer. In terms of the dryness of the flammable material, particularly in wooded and non-urban areas, “basically right now we’re sitting in August,” my source told me.

And who has to be reminded what happened in August?

I’m old enough to remember a time when fireworks were looked at as largely benign. When I was a kid, I knew a man who had lost three fingers to an M-80. But mostly, firecrackers and “Roman candles” were widely available, at least on the Fourth. But over the years, more and more people have begun to see what these things do to the state of mind of our young children and our animal companions. We’ve learned about the trauma they can bring about to certain combat veterans and people with PTSD. We’ve seen the black, sooty garbage they leave behind on beaches and streets.

And now, in the teeth of a punishing drought and in the wake of the worst fire catastrophe in local history, shooting off illegal fireworks is seen as akin to flicking lit cigarettes out of a car window.

Fireworks over Aptos
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Independence Day is supposed to be a moment of celebration, to enjoy the young summer, play catch, eat something pulled off a grill, drink something pulled out of ice. It’s supposed to be a moment to acknowledge the privilege and joy of being an American. But for many, it’s instead become a time to hunker down with the dogs, scan the horizon for smoke plumes, and manage anxiety.

In a parallel universe, of course, fireworks might be allowed to fizzle out as a cultural phenomenon as rational adults recognize that its problems outweigh its thrills. In that universe, we might be able to mature and put away childish things as a nation. I might one day have to turn to YouTube (or its successor) to explain to my grandchildren what fireworks were.

In this world, however, after the sad spectacle of the political weaponizing of the pandemic facemask, we all know that a political firestorm conflating criticism of fireworks into an attack on patriotism is as ready to ignite as an actual firestorm on the ground in California.

Disneyland is probably safe for now, but do we have the courage to envision a world where we can celebrate the nation’s birthday without “bombs bursting in air”?

“War on Fireworks”? Maybe not. But Had Enough-ville? I think that’s the next exit.

To report the discharge of illegal fireworks in Santa Cruz County during the Fourth of July weekend, call (831) 471-1131 for Santa Cruz, (831) 475-4242 for Capitola and (831) 471-1121 for unincorporated areas, or by e-mail at crr@centralfiresc.org.