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Monday, Jul 07 2014 11:15 AM

DOUG GREENER: I'm on record as anti-personal use fireworks

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Bakersfield Fire Department Chief Doug Greener.

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BY DOUG GREENER Contributing columnist

The Fourth of July holiday is over, and on Sunday morning I could still smell the odor of burned black powder in the air. Paper fragments, beer bottles, burned cardboard cones, spent sparklers and other debris remain thick on the streets of some developments. Another year of chaos, fouled air, people running wild with fire in the streets and neighborhoods described as "war zones."

Yes, there were the rare islands of sanity, with law-abiding families coming together to watch meager showers of sparks in their legal, State Fire Marshal approved, Safe-and-Sane cul-de-sac displays. If that was your Fourth of July celebration, you have my personal thanks and appreciation as the fire chief. But those, in my opinion, were the exception, and not the rule here. The war zone analogy is much more accurate and Bakersfield firefighters and police officers were under fire again and experienced it first-hand.

The fireworks debate continues in our city, one of the municipalities in our state that allows the sale of personal use pyrotechnics during the Independence Day holiday, including during drought years. Opinions are swatted back and forth like a Wimbledon finals match, with personal freedom being the foundational argument on both sides. The pro-fireworks camp cites the right to celebrate and fund-raise, and the anti-fireworks camp cites the right to not be under siege and burned out of their homes.

I'll go on record here as being anti-fireworks, or more specifically, anti-personal use fireworks. As a firefighter, there's really no other position for me to take. Don't get me wrong. I love a good, professionally produced fireworks show. Real fireworks, 1,000 feet in the air, huge explosions, great colors...impressive. And safe. The instances where professional shows have malfunctions are very few and far between, and those shows are the only way to go from a broad public safety perspective. The City of Bakersfield, among other entities, produces a first-class professional fireworks show every year, with large aerial shells, and it's free of charge. But even that's not enough noise and fire power.

The Bakersfield Fire Department teams firefighters up with law enforcement in a joint effort to get BFD boots onto the frontlines to deal directly with illegal fireworks. The battle is not going well. This year, celebrants managed to burn down a garage, burn the roofs off several homes, burn down fences, trees, shrubs, grass and scare the life out of pets across the city.

The BFD/BPD Fireworks Enforcement Teams and BFD Arson Units responded to 413 illegal fireworks calls and issued 47 citations, and BFD fire stations responded to 31 working fire calls. There was at least one serious injury, and that individual was transported to a medical facility in southern California with severe eye damage from a firecracker. That, in my book, does not constitute a good holiday.

At around 9 p.m. that evening, the Fire Department Operations Center was in full swing, and radios in the fourth floor headquarters DOC facility were jammed with activity for fireworks related responses. The deputy fire chief of operations had the city-wide deployments well under control, and I headed out to the southwest, where the deputy fire chief of special services was providing oversight of BFD units assigned to the Riverwalk Park area.

The organized event there went off safely and flawlessly, until several teenagers with roman candles decided to "celebrate" afterward by shooting flaming balls into the dry brush in the river bottom. BFD firefighters were there for two hours cleaning up that mess, thanks to the parent who supplied the illegal fireworks to those kids. Do people not read? Or watch the news? Or listen to the numerous warnings issued by the Fire Department and every media outlet in the city? I just don't know where the warning message goes. Maybe up in smoke with the neighbor's roof.

On my way back to my own neighborhood, as I do every Fourth of July, I drove into random developments to get an up-close-and-personal look at what was going on. Same story, different year. Hordes of people watching illegal displays. When I turned on my red spot lights and tried to identify someone, anyone, the stampede begins with adults scurrying to get into garages and close doors, knocking over chairs, tables and beer bottles in the process. On my way out, a bottle rocket flies over my vehicle. Not our finest hour.

In the coming year, the Fire Department will examine our enforcement processes and take a closer look at other illegal fireworks control options, including some used by other cities. On behalf of the men and women of the Bakersfield Fire Department, I again strongly encourage everyone to consider attending a professional fireworks show next year as the only real "safe-and-sane" option.

-- Doug Greener is chief of the Bakersfield Fire Department. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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