Stanislaus County sheriff's Detective John Heilman was hoping not to encounter anyone selling or launching illegal fireworks as he hit the streets Friday.
That wouldn't be good for anyone -- not the seller who would be cited, or the launcher who would face a fine for endangering others.
"I'm not out here to ruin somebody's good time, just as long as they're not ruining somebody else's good time," Heilman said. "(Illegal fireworks) are dangerous, but in the wrong hands they're even more dangerous."
He is part of a five-member sheriff's team assigned to be on the lookout this Fourth of July weekend for illegal fireworks that can produce dangerous fires and injuries.
The danger comes when a wayward aerial firework sparks a blaze that can spread to homes, Heilman said, or when a large explosive goes off near a group of people.
The sheriff's officials responded to some reports of illegal fireworks, but they did not issue any citations or seize any explosives Friday night.
Heilman's team will hit the streets again tonight, searching for M-80s, cherry bombs, firecrackers, bottle rockets and professional-grade aerial fireworks.
The basic rule of thumb for these investigators: If it explodes or launches into the sky, it's illegal.
"You got to watch out for those M-1000s," Heilman said. "That's a big explosion; it'll rattle your doors."
The sheriff's team is part of a larger task force that responds to reports of illegal fireworks July 2-4. The task force includes Modesto police and Modesto Fire Department investigators searching for illegal explosives and aerial shells.
The local task force, in its sixth year, is funded by donations from each vendor selling legal fireworks and a matching donation from the two affiliated legal fireworks producers, TNT Fireworks and Phantom Fireworks.
The two nights before the holiday can seem rather calm compared with the Fourth of July. Throughout the night, Heilman said, officers will get about 1,000 calls reporting illegal fireworks.
"It's crazy," Heilman said of the night. "There's no way we can respond to all of them."
Instead, the investigators saturate areas, hoping to catch violators red-handed. The detective said it's hard to prove who launched the firework if you don't see the culprit lighting the fuse.
"They'll launch one from the back yard or the trunk of a car," Heilman said. "They'll set one off and hide the rest. Our goal is to keep it to a minimum."
About two years ago in Salida, Heilman said, officers witnessed a group of kids lighting a brick-size box full of rockets. Instead of launching them into the sky, the rockets raced down the street in the direction of a crowd.
There were no injuries in that in- cident, and Heilman said officers caught the culprits and cited them.
The task force investigators make their Fourth of July rounds in marked patrol cars to have a visible presence that might keep some from lighting illegal fireworks. The investigators, however, also travel in unmarked vehicles to catch violators in the act.
The sheriff's team started the evening Friday by watching legal fireworks vendors from a distance to make sure they weren't selling an illegal stash, selling to minors or allowing minors inside the vendors' booths.
The investigators then moved in to make sure everything in the vendors' booths was up to legal standards. They spoke with fireworks vendor Dan Graham, asking him whether minors were trying to buy fireworks without an adult present.
"Yeah, but we tell them, 'If you're not 18, you can't buy,' " said Graham, 59, of Modesto.
The investigators also visited Ceres resident Dan Golling, who was selling fireworks to benefit the Burbank Fire Department.
Golling, the father of two firefighters at the department, said firefighting staffs are stretched thin because of budget cuts. Having to respond to fires caused by illegal fireworks just exacerbates the difficulties for firefighters.
"I have someone launching fireworks from about two blocks away over my house," 58-year-old Golling said to the investigators. "Yeah they're pretty, but people don't think about what could happen."
As the sun set Friday, Heilman started hearing reports of illegal fireworks coming from his police radio. It was a sign of things to come.
"We're two days away from the Fourth of July, and things are already starting to pop off," Heilman said. "After dusk, it just grows and grows."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.