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Battling the Booms

Eureka makes it easier to report, investigate illegal fireworks

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Last Friday night, Eureka resident Jean Scheffler was awoken by several loud explosions that lit up the sky over her neighborhood. The booms were so loud they shook her windows and her dogs began to cower and shake vigorously with anxiety. Scheffler knew, especially with Fourth of July being right around the corner, they were illegal fireworks.

She and a group of other Humboldt County residents also fed up with unexpected illegal fireworks going off at all hours have been working to change the city of Eureka's municipal code on illegal fireworks. The code currently prohibits all types of fireworks in Old Town and on Woodley Island, but reverts to California's code stating no person is allowed to set off or discharge any large fireworks that explode in the air or move on the ground uncontrollably (like sky rockets, bottle rockets, roman candles, aerial shells and firecrackers) unless they have a permit. "Safe and sane" fireworks, which are approved by the California Office of the State Fire Marshall and sold through the temporary fireworks stands that crop up in advance of the Fourth, are otherwise allowed.

Within the past year, the group has attended city council meetings, met with Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman, the Eureka Police Department and Humboldt Bay Fire, all in an effort to stop illegal fireworks from sending roaring booms through their neighborhoods.

"It's a battle," Scheffler said. "We just want our peace and quiet back after the Fourth."

For this particular group, their pets and families have a hard time when loud explosions go off, so some decide to leave town to areas where fireworks aren't heard, while others choose to tranquilize their pets due to mitigate severe stress responses. Scheffler said that it's easier to plan for expected fireworks on the Fourth but it's the sudden explosions that are the most problematic and, in very rare instances, have led to tragic loss.

At the start of the New Year, people in Margie Omstead's neighborhood near Pinehill began setting off illegal fireworks. The loud booms scared her horse, causing it to run into a chain-link fence and suffer severe injuries that ultimately led to it being euthanized.

Reports of loud explosions and illegal fireworks have increased within the city of Eureka in the past couple of years, according to EPD, with complaints increasing 137 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Humboldt Bay Fire spokesperson Amy Conlin told the Journal that, although the department doesn't track data on the types of calls they respond to, she is confident it responds to at least 10 to 15 calls per year due to fireworks.

"Fireworks all around are dangerous," Conlin said. "Even legal fireworks, like sparklers, that are set off near dry grass can start a fire, or if a child is holding one, the base can get as hot as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and they can burn themselves."

To help address the ongoing problem, the city of Eureka recently created an online tool to report illegal fireworks, Seaman told the Journal.

"That form was a direct result of the work Jean Scheffler's group did," the mayor said. "It was something that wasn't on our priority list until she came in and had those conversations and we were able to start those conversations and see what we could do to help."

The hardest part of responding to reports of illegal fireworks is that investigative resources are always scarce. EPD spokesperson Brittany Powell said a lot of reports come in as "heard only" and are otherwise vague.

"[These cases] are really hard to investigate," EPD Capt. Brian Stephens said. "You could set off a mortar on the street and be back in your house before your neighbors can see, and we've also been literally around the block and heard the boom and seen the flashes and gone over and nobody's there and we would never be able to find them."

So, in an effort to make investigations easier on EPD and the dispatch center, the city of Eureka's illegal fireworks online report form asks for very specific details of the incidents, like the location and address of the fireworks' source and "violator" information, including a vehicle description, if possible.

"Around the 4th of July and New Year's, our dispatch center can get inundated with calls reporting illegal fireworks," Powell said in an email. "It is our hope that this form can alleviate some of those calls and provide our officers and firefighters with additional information to locate those responsible."

After hearing the explosions in her neighborhood last Friday, Scheffler began completing EPD's online fireworks complaint form, giving her some hope.

"I'm really encouraged by the form," Scheffler says, "I was very happy that they did this because [Seaman] told me back in January that they were going to have a reporting form on the website. ... We're encouraged."

Since the online form was released June 10, EPD has received three completed firework complaints. While Powell didn't state whether the reports have made investigations easier, she did say that the completed forms provided a general vicinity of the possible sources, which is one of its goals.

"We're hoping that if people feel there's a better way to report it, we might be able to do some more triangulation and say, 'OK, we're seeing a lot of reports coming from this area, maybe we can send a patrol car and identify who's doing it,'" Seaman said.

But Scheffler and her group want to also see changes to the city's municipal code section on fireworks.

"I would really like to see a consequence attached to the code," Scheffler said, adding that it could discourage illegal fireworks from going off. "I'm not opposed to setting off fireworks on Fourth of July. But when it's not the Fourth is when it's hard."

Although there aren't any direct consequences written into the Eureka Municipal code, Stephens says anyone caught setting off any fireworks in Old Town and Woodley Island could face fines of up to $500 or up to six months in jail. In other areas of Eureka where state laws are applied, people can face a misdemeanor charge of up to one year in county jail or a $1,000 fine for setting off illegal fireworks.

There haven't been cases where EPD has arrested individuals setting off illegal fireworks, but Stephens says there have been instances of fires and severe injuries caused by illegal fireworks set off in the county. But mostly, Stephens is hopeful residents will be mindful of their neighbors and their surroundings this year.

"Our goal is compliance and quality of life for all of our citizens," Stephens says. "We understand and absolutely support the Fourth of July in all aspects, but we're in the middle of a historical drought, we live in a city compared to a rural area and we need to look after one another and ensure that everyone can enjoy the holiday. ... Stick with 'safe and sane,' keep everything out of Old Town and Woodley Island and I think we'll all have an enjoyable Fourth of July."

Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or iridian@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

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