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Why Many Illegal Fireworks Could Be Gone in California Next July Fourth
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By CalMatters
Published 1 week ago on
July 5, 2024

As California grapples with the dangers of illegal fireworks, TNT Fireworks, the country's largest distributor, is lobbying for stricter regulations and interstate cooperation. (CalMatters/Ted Soqui)

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For eight years, Mike Salazar has spent Fourth of July week selling fireworks in an empty parking lot in Vernon. His truck is covered floor to ceiling with boxes of small snappers, sky rockets and $500 pre-built show packages.

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Jenna Peterson

CalMatters

“By the Fourth, there’s been times where we’ve been able to sell out everything and be out of here by 2 o’clock,” Salazar said. “I’ll be trying to close and people stop by saying, ‘I’ll buy whatever’s left!’”

The stand is one of hundreds across the country owned by TNT Fireworks, generating $110 million in revenue in California. It is already the country’s largest distributor of consumer fireworks.

Now, the company is trying to get California to crack down on illegal fireworks, including those sold in Nevada — and maybe boost its sales.

While “safe and sane” fireworks — including sparklers, smokeballs, and noisemakers — are legal in many cities throughout California, projectile and explosive fireworks are illegal everywhere in the state.

So far this year, California has seized more than 120 tons of illegal fireworks, which is “well above” average, state Fire Marshal Daniel Berlant said in a news conference Tuesday. Last month, police seized 75 tons of illegal fireworks from a warehouse in Gardena — the largest bust in California’s history.

“It’s a glaring, shocking example of how the problem has grown to such proportions that there is so much more out there in this state, that something has to be done about it,” said Dennis Revell, CEO of Revell Communications, which represents TNT Fireworks.

Every Fourth of July, police and fire departments get swamped with calls about illegal fireworks.

Revell said that many illegal fireworks are coming from stores in Nevada counties where all fireworks are legal — some just eight miles from the California border.

In 2021, the Los Angeles Police Department detonated 16 tons of illegal fireworks found in a South Los Angeles home, injuring 17 people and displacing residents of the neighborhood. The city just reached a $21 million settlement with the affected families. The owner of the fireworks testified that he purchased most of them from Area 51, a store in Pahrump, Nevada.

Seeking an Agreement with Nevada

Since January 2023, TNT Fireworks has spent more than $300,000 on lobbying California’s Legislature, governor’s office, fire marshal, Cal Fire and the attorney general’s office, according to the Secretary of State’s office. The company has donated nearly $7,000 to campaigns this election, including $2,000 to Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, a Coachella Democrat and the author of Assembly Bill 1403, the focus of its lobbying efforts.

Last year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill, which doubled the range of illegal firework fines. The maximum — for possessing at least 5,000 pounds — jumped from $50,000 to $100,000.

An earlier version of the bill set aside a portion of the state sales tax on “safe and sane” fireworks to fund increased statewide enforcement against illegal fireworks. The provision was removed, and that’s when Revell came up with a new plan that he proposed to a fire marshal’s advisory committee: California and Nevada should work together to stop illegal firework sales earlier.

Firework stores in Nevada are already required to log information about their customers, including their ID. Through an interstate compact, Revell said, Nevada could require stores to put this information into a state database and alert California law enforcement when a California resident buys fireworks that are illegal here.

The proposal is now in Berlant’s hands. He’s reviewing it, and if it moves forward, Berlant will present it to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, which would discuss it with Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo.

Newsom has signed other interstate compacts, including a 2020 agreement with four Western states to curb COVID-19’s effect on the economy and a 2022 deal with the governors of Oregon and Washington and the premier of British Columbia to combat climate change.

Because of this history, Revell said he thinks Newsom will be receptive to an agreement with Nevada. “I wish there was a better solution, but it’s the best we’ve been able to come up with given the circumstances that we’re facing,” Revell said.

If the compact requires approval from Nevada’s legislature, it is out of session until 2025.

“We have a very short time window to try and accomplish this, and we fully expect that the majority of Nevada firework stores will fight that effort if it requires any legislation, because of the potential impact it could have on their business,” Revell said.

Same Concerns, Smaller Scale

In some California cities, fireworks are completely banned — even those labeled “safe and sane.” Among these cities are Los Angeles, San Diego, and Long Beach.

Located just outside Los Angeles, Vernon has only 222 residents, according to the 2020 Census. But Salazar — treasurer of the Rotary Club of Rio Hondo-Vernon — said his fireworks cart makes about $12,000 to $15,000 each year.

“Our advantage is we get a lot of people that come from the Valley, over there it’s illegal,” Salazar said. “We’re literally the first one off the freeways.”

Mike Salazar of the Rotary Club at a “Safe and Sane” fireworks stand in the City of Vernon on July 2, 2024. (CalMatters/Ted Soqui)

Salazar said “safe and sane” fireworks should be legal throughout the state. Many TNT stands are operated by nonprofits — such as the Rotary Club — that split the proceeds with the company. Under AB 1403, cities that allow the sale of legal fireworks collect 7% of profits to put toward local efforts to combat illegal fireworks.

“Not only do you take away from most of the nonprofits in the area that could generate a decent amount of money and do some good in the community,” Salazar said, “but you’re also losing that tax.”

‘Perfect Recipe for a Disaster’

On the other hand, fireworks safety is always a concern.

And state fire officials are warning Californians about the dangers of setting off fireworks in the middle of a triple-digit heat wave when the wildfire risk is already elevated. Red flag warnings are in place in seven California counties, and two wildfires broke out Tuesday morning in Northern California. Several cities canceled their Fourth of July fireworks displays.

In Tuesday’s news conference, state fire officials said that some “safe and sane” fireworks, such as sparklers, can get as hot as 12,000 degrees.

Californians who use “safe and sane” fireworks this holiday should avoid setting them off near flammable objects or vegetation.

“The dry grass, the vegetation across the state, coupled with triple-digit temperatures and the wind is a perfect recipe for a disaster,” Berlant said.

About the Author

Jenna Peterson joins CalMatters as an intern with the Politics team through the Dow Jones News Fund digital media program. She recently graduated from the University of Southern California, where she majored in journalism and political science. In her time at USC, she served as editor in chief of the Daily Trojan and held internships with VTDigger, LAist, and the Los Angeles Times.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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