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Petaluma debates fireworks ban amid wildfire danger

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Dick Sharke has been selling fireworks in Petaluma for more than three decades.

It’s a vital source of fundraising for the McDowell Drug Task Force, which the retired military veteran heads as its founder and executive director. He estimated his volunteer staff made somewhere between $8,000 and $9,000 in profits thanks to Independence Day last week, selling ground-bound fireworks that are sanctioned by the state.

But that five-day window every summer when Sharke sets up a booth and earns thousands of dollars to donate to D.A.R.E. and Project Graduation might be in jeopardy.

Petaluma is one of only four cities in Sonoma County that allows the sale and possession of “safe and sane” fireworks, and the lingering trauma from October’s destructive wildfires has rekindled the debate over whether pyrotechnics should be banned altogether.

“I look at the Fourth of July as the birthday party for the greatest country in the world, the United States of America,” Sharke said. “I’m a Korean War veteran and Vietnam veteran. We’ve had men and women give their lives so we could have that birthday party. We don’t need to have that taken away.”

During last week’s city council meeting, multiple council members reintroduced the notion of outlawing fireworks to the public forum.

Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said it was “ridiculous” that Petaluma still allows them. She pointed out their traumatic effect on pets and the money lost by spreading the city’s overworked public safety departments thin as they canvass every edge of the community.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, fireworks start an average of 18,500 fires each year. In 2017, U.S. emergency rooms treated an estimated 12,900 people for firework-related injuries, and 36 percent of them were age 15 or younger.

“Why do we needlessly expose (firefighters) to more overtime when we don’t really need to do that, and really endanger them and endanger our entire city,” Barrett said.

All fireworks are illegal in fire-prone areas and are prohibited in the unincorporated areas around Petaluma. Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and Cloverdale are the other three cities in the county that allow state-sanctioned fireworks.

Councilman Chris Albertson, Petaluma’s former fire chief, pointed out that the number of booths is declining. At one point there were 22 permits issued but this summer there were 13, indicating continued attrition thanks to stricter regulations and fewer nonprofits or youth organizations electing to fundraise with fireworks.

He believes the city council will discuss the issue multiple times “before the end of this calendar year,” but warned that the public response would be contentious. Firework distributors like TNT and Phantom mobilize campaigns to push back, and usually petition to get the issue on a November ballot to try to overturn council bans.

“There’s a strong push now by those that don’t like fireworks to do a ban,” Albertson said. “That’s fine and dandy. I’m in, but we‘ve got to be prepared for what follows. The nonprofits are going to go ballistic and it’s not going to completely eliminate fireworks in our community. … (But) we need to do it now.”

Sharke said all of the money from his stand goes “right back into the community,” assisting drug and crime prevention initiatives and scholarship programs that help Petaluma students.

“When kids come to our booth, we always let them know to be very careful with the fireworks they have, to be safe and we let them know a little about what the Fourth of July is all about,” he said. “We give them a history lesson.”

However, Sharke would like to see a stronger crackdown on the use of illegal fireworks. Law enforcement issues $1,000 fines for the possession, sale or use of illegal fireworks, but that doesn’t mean residents aren’t using them.

Petaluma Fire Marshal Jessica Power said public safety officials issued one citation this year, but “we could’ve wrote many more.” The fire department also responded to three dumpster fires that night, all likely caused by careless disposal.

And after last year’s wildfires, with multiple red flag heat advisories over the past month and two fires currently ripping through Lake and Yolo counties, residents have been voicing their concerns.

“I’ve definitely seen an uptick in emails and phone calls to our office, complaining about or expressing their desire to not see fireworks in Petaluma,” Power said. “They’re definitely more passionate about those responses this year.”

The police and fire departments conduct a broad preventative campaign over the weeks and months prior to July 4. They send out enforcement teams that “make their presence known” and make frequent stops to educate citizens, Power said.

Local movie theaters aired a 30-second PSA called “Don’t Get Burned” from May 11 to July 11. Electronic billboards were displayed near the auto mall and fairgrounds to remind residents of the rules. Detailed signage is posted in both fire-sensitive areas and each of the locations around the city designated for safe use.

The Petaluma Police Department also issued numerous Nixle alerts in the days leading up to July 4. “Safe and sane” fireworks are only allowed on the holiday itself, between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m.

But, despite all the awareness raised, illegal fireworks are launched into the sky every year, booming overhead well after the city’s mandated window has ended.

The relationship between fireworks and July 4 is rooted deep in its tradition, and even if they do eventually get banned, fire officials won’t be changing their tactics to try and deter illegal use.

“I imagine we’ll always have enforcement around the Fourth of July involving fireworks … even if the council banned (them),” Power said.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)