Richmond fireworks pose risk of fire, injury and also health

Richmond police report drop in NYE fireworks calls
Illegal fireworks set off in Richmond on New Year's Eve, 2020. (Photos by Mike Kinney)

Amid a Red Flag Warning issued over Mother’s Day weekend and a state drought emergency declaration, fireworks exploded all over the city of Richmond, lighting up the sky and also social media with posts from outraged residents.

When in the past fireworks use was limited to two holidays, Independence Day and New Year’s Eve, the tide has turned to where now they’re being set off unendingly in Richmond. Last year, the Richmond Police Department received about 2,533 calls for service regarding the use of illegal fireworks. Their more frequent use not only poses increased risk of injury and fires, but also to residents’ health, not only triggering conditions of residents who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in a city that already endures an inordinate number of shootings, but also in the form of exposure to particulate matter, experts say.

A quarterly reporting of criteria air pollutants and toxic air contaminants, part of the state-mandated California Air Protection Program (CAPP), called out increases in particulate matter in Richmond due to the fireworks during the Independence Day and New Year’s Eve holidays last year, as well as the 2020 wildfires. Data from air monitors installed by Chevron Richmond to track pollution show increases in local particulate matter emissions during this period since the legally-mandated CAPP became effective in January 2020.  

Air monitoring data show that pollution from sources such as fireworks, wildfires, and vehicular traffic, pose a greater health concern to local residents than industrial sources, including the Richmond Refinery, which has reported that its PM emissions have been reduced by 25 percent since 2019 as a result of its refinery modernization project coming online.

There is a difference between emissions of particulate matter and exposure to particulate matter, Greg Nudd, deputy air pollution control officer for policy at Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said at the Community Equity, Health & Justice Committee meeting on May 6.

“If you just draw a map around Richmond, about 90 percent of the PM emissions are from Chevron,” Nudd said. “But if you look at exposure, about 80 percent of the PM exposure in Richmond is from sources other than Chevron.”

Increased particulate matter from fireworks, along with the fires they may cause, makes them not just a noise nuisance, but a health and safety risk, the experts say.

An explosive July 4 in Contra Costa County
Photos of illegal fireworks being set off in Richmond on July 4, 2020, by Mike Kinney

And the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation, with fireworks use having skyrocketed, forcing sanctioned events to be canceled while holing up people in their homes.

“In this year of drought superimposed on global warming, the danger of fire resulting from fireworks is perhaps the highest we have ever seen,” said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt in an eForum post on the issue.

Despite receiving about 2,533 calls for service regarding the use of illegal fireworks last year, only one citation was issued in 2020 related to fireworks, the mayor’s office said.

Under Richmond municipal code, possessing, selling, giving away, storing, using, or discharging any fireworks is a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to 6 months in jail.

Richmond Police Chief Bisa French said it’s difficult to make arrests for fireworks violations.

“We encourage callers to be specific in guiding us to where the fireworks are coming from,” Chief French said. “Often we see them in the area but can’t pinpoint a specific street or home. By the time we make it to the area, the participants are nowhere to be found.”

The mayor said residents are “fed up” that people aren’t being caught.

“I don’t want to see an apartment building or house burned down, or someone lose a hand, because they didn’t weigh the risk of harm,” the mayor said. “The effect on pets is another serious result of illegal fireworks.”

Residents share the mayor’s frustration.

“Just yesterday we received an official ‘red flag’ warning from the local county authority, because of the extremely dry conditions and the unusual wind patterns in the region,” stated one poster on a Richmond-based Nextdoor thread following Mother’s Day weekend. “California has seen a rash of devastating wild fires, which have caused hundreds of millions in property damage, as well as many deaths, and destruction of forests. No one with any understanding of the dangers associated with accidental setting of fires could be ‘okay’ with illegal fireworks in the East Bay hills.”

Still another poster on Nextdoor complained, “If you know who they are please call the police. It’s insane they are using fireworks in this dry weather,” while yet another wondered, “Have City Councilmembers addressed this issue?”

Enforcement of fireworks has been difficult, Mayor Butt wrote in his eForum that Richmond Police Department “has told us that it is difficult for them to enforce the law against using fireworks unless they actually witness a person possessing or setting off fireworks.”

That being established, the mayor said in his post that “whether Richmond is successful in reducing the level of fireworks over the next two months is largely in the hands of it residents.” Here’s what the mayor suggests:

“If you see or hear fireworks and can identify the location, call the police using 9-1-1. Give the dispatcher the exact location, including an address, if you know it. It is a misdemeanor to possess or set off fireworks…Even a few arrests and convictions, particularly in the early part of the fireworks season can be a powerful deterrent.”

The mayor also suggests that those with neighbors with a history of setting off fireworks simply ask them to refrain from it. Spreading this info on social media and at community meetings was another thought he offered up on the issue.

Also important to note is that the Mayor’s Office is offering a $2,500 reward to anyone who reports a fireworks violation in Richmond that leads to arrest and conviction. For more info about the reward, contact the Mayor’s Office at 510-620-6503.