Because of a very dry year, the Merced City Council adopted a new ordinance that can punish improper fireworks use with a $1,000 fine, but opponents said the parameters for use need to be clearer.
The council voted 5-2 this week to adopt the ordinance, which gives police and firefighters the option to administer a $1,000 administrative fine to anyone using illegal fireworks or improperly lighting fireworks labeled as “Safe and Sane” by the state fire marshal.
Councilmen Michael Belluomini and Noah Lor voted against the ordinance.
Administering the citation means the offense would not be considered criminal, said Michael Wilkinson, Merced’s interim fire chief. “We still have the criminal remedies if we needed those,” he said. “This is just another tool.”
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Certain fireworks are prohibited year-round throughout the state. Under California law, illegal fireworks include sky rockets, bottle rockets, Roman candles, aerial shells, firecrackers and other miscellaneous types that explode, fly or move about the ground in an uncontrollable fashion.
The Safe and Sane kind are illegal in Merced anytime outside of noon June 28 to noon July 6.
A first-time offender could be fined $1,000; repeat offenders could be fined up to $2,000 per offense during a 12-month period. Wilkinson said the fine would be used in rare instances. Police and firefighters responding to illegal use of pyrotechnics most often will explain the laws to the users and leave them with only a warning, he said.
The use of an administrative ordinance is becoming more common in the state, Wilkinson said. Cal Fire and the Los Banos Fire Department use administrative fines at the discretion of responders.
Belluomini said the fines are too severe for those using a Safe and Sane firework outside of the permitted days. A fine would not be necessary for something he sees as a rare occurrence, he said. “I was just having a hard time imagining how a use of Safe and Sane fireworks would harm the public good enough to warrant a $1,000 fine,” he said.
A family using the Safe and Sane pyrotechnics to celebrate, for example, or a young person finding old fireworks and setting them off doesn’t warrant much more than a warning, he said. The ordinance would do better to have lines drawn between the types of pyrotechnics, he said, rather than leave the administration of a citation a matter of discretion.
Mayor Stan Thurston said giving ifficers discretion is necessary to keep from “handcuffing” their attempts to enforce the ordinance. He said the officers will use “common sense” to decide if firework use warrants a fine or a warning. “If we try to manage their common sense, it usually ends up with not so good results,” he said.
Adding to the importance of managing fireworks use in the area is the drought, Thurston said. “It’s going to be a tinderbox all summer long,” he said.
The new ordinance also requires those who sell Safe and Sane fireworks to go through a training class. Wilkinson said that training was common practice in Merced.