Marek Warszawski

On behalf of everyone breathing, time to douse legal fireworks sales in Fresno

What I’m about to say will make me the central San Joaquin Valley’s biggest party pooper.

Dozens of community organizations, from scout troops to church groups to youth softball teams, will look askance in my direction. Those who believe government already stymies too many of their personal freedoms will use me for target practice.

I’ll probably even be labeled un-American.

That’s OK. Let ’em come. They won’t stop me from hollering at the top of my lungs that the country’s foulest air basin, parched by years of drought, is the wrong place for legal fireworks.

There’s nothing safe nor sane about how cities like Fresno, Clovis and Visalia permit their own citizens to celebrate the Fourth of July by willfully and gleefully polluting the air they breathe with soot and particulates.

Even on a normal July day, Valley air is harmful enough with high ozone levels. But on the evening of July 4, air monitors record spikes in particle pollution that soar to four or five times higher than federal health standards.

The worst of these particulates, called PM 2.5, are particularly insidious. These little buggers get absorbed by our lungs into the bloodstream and have been linked to heart attacks and strokes.

It’s not just kids, the elderly or asthma sufferers who are at risk. It’s anyone who uses their lungs to breathe.

“You can’t necessarily go to the ER the next day and determine how many people had heart attacks or strokes because of fireworks because that’s not the presenting complaint,” said Dr. John Gasman, a pulmonologist at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center-Fresno. “But statistically you can look over time and see a surge in those types of patients.”

Health isn’t the only consequence of our fireworks infatuation. Last year, fire departments in Fresno, Clovis and Fresno County received 325 calls for service – a 65 percent increase from 2016 – and responded to 98 vegetation fires, three residential fires, two apartment fires and two vehicle fires over the holiday weekend.

Things got so out of hand that on the evening of July 4, the Fresno Fire Department could not respond to medical emergencies until after midnight because there were so many fireworks-related calls pouring in.

How nuts is that? Sorry, we can’t come to your aid because the entire city is burning.

Fireworks even place our pets at risk. Since most dogs and cats don’t respond well to explosions, some get scared and run away. So many that the Central California SPCA takes in between 70 to 100 more animals during Fourth of July week compared to the other 51. The SPCA also sees spikes in calls for animal containment as well as dead and injured animal pick-ups.

All of this because thousands of people believe lighting off fireworks is an inalienable right – no matter the risk to health, property and pets.

Sorry, it’s not. And the sanctioning of legal fireworks by many Valley cities only makes a bad situation worse.

When almost everyone in the neighborhood is lighting off fireworks they purchased at one of those stands that suddenly spring up all over town, it gives cover to those who buy the illegal kind.

Back in the day, illegal fireworks were pretty much limited to things that go boom. Not anymore. In 2018, bottle rockets, cherry bombs and M80s “are dwarfed by the heavy importation and use of aerial shells rivaling or surpassing those used at most public fireworks displays.”

That’s a direct quote from a fireworks industry-sponsored website.

Last Fourth of July, while driving back from Shaver Lake, I must have seen 20 fireworks shows exploding over Fresno and Clovis. Most of them were not public displays put on by the Fresno Grizzlies, Clovis Kiwanis and many others. They were individuals shelling their own neighborhoods.

Clovis Police Department arrested two suspects after uncovering $80,000 worth of stolen fireworks in their home on Wednesday, June 27,2018. Larry Valenzuela

While police and fire departments pledge to step up enforcement (Fresno’s FresGo smart phone app is adding a fireworks tab where citizens can give GPS coordinates and provide pictures), there simply isn’t enough manpower to create an adequate deterrent.

Legal fireworks, even when used responsibly, add to the dangerous conditions and are even worse when it comes to air pollution. When fireworks explode high in the air, the smoke catches wind and has a better chance to disperse. When set from the ground, we all breathe it in.

“That smoke is going to stay on the ground and smoke out their neighbors and their neighborhood,” said Jamie Holt, spokesperson for Valley Air District.

Fireworks were forbidden in Fresno for more than 70 years. That changed in 2000 thanks to a short-sighted decision by the City Council that was championed by then-Mayor Jim Patterson. The fireworks industry gave assurances that stands would be operated by nonprofits, which typically earn between $12,000 to $15,000 per year in sales.

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If fireworks were banned again, the argument goes, how would those groups survive?

I have two thoughts on that: First, how did all those scout troops, church groups and youth softball teams survive in the 20th century without fireworks money? They must have managed.

Second, perhaps we could subsidize those groups so they need not pollute our air in the name of the almighty dollar. Every year the Valley Air District receives $300,000 worth of incentive dollars from the state in order to improve local air quality.

The district typically uses this money on a diesel truck or tractor that pollutes the air 365 days a year. “Something that gives us the biggest bang for the buck,” Holt said. Makes perfect sense. But perhaps one year that money, along with donations from larger philanthropic organizations, can be used to help wean nonprofits off their fireworks dependance.

Individuals could be part of the solution. Instead of purchasing fireworks from a community group, simply write them a check for the same amount. Then gather up the family, pack a picnic basket and go enjoy one of the large public displays.

You’ll get a better show, spare our air (not to mention our pets) while making it easier for authorities to crack down on scofflaws who can’t celebrate the Fourth of July without blowing something up.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee