Flamethrowers are not yet illegal possessions for the general public in unincorporated San Mateo County, but a process is now underway to make them so.
The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Sept. 4, unanimously approved an ordinance that, if it becomes law, would prohibit the use, ownership, sale, trade, transfer or distribution of flamethrowers in unincorporated communities such as Ladera, Los Trancos Woods, North Fair Oaks and Stanford Weekend Acres.
A flamethrower ban may seem an unusual matter for county supervisors to take up, but it was in fact a timely move. In February, The Boring Company – a California firm founded by Elon Musk, the chief executive at Tesla and Space X – announced plans to sell 20,000 automatic-rifle-like devices, for $500 each, that shoot flames a distance of several feet. The devices sold out in five days, according to a February CNBC story.
A spate of recent news stories brought the matter to the attention of supervisors Don Horsley and Warren Slocum, who sponsored the ordinance.
The ordinance defines a flamethrower as a portable device "designed or intended to emit, or capable of emitting or propelling, fire or a burning stream of combustible or flammable liquid" a distance of 22 inches or more.
The flamethrowers made by Boring are powered by propane gas. A state permit is required only if the device shoots a burning liquid a distance of at least 10 feet. Videos show this device shooting flames several feet, but less than 10 feet.
The ordinance would go into effect 30 days after the board votes to approve it a second time. The board's next meeting is set for 9 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 400 County Center in Redwood City.
"This is not a fun device," Horsley said before the initial vote. "This is not something that we want to see. ... Rather than wait and find that these are a problem in the community, we decided to pursue an ordinance."
In an interview, Horsley said he hopes that cities and towns in the county will consider their own ordinances in the interest of fire safety. Though the Boring devices sold out, other manufacturers may come along, he said.
"If it can be done, it will be done," he said. "We've been lucky so far, but we could have a wildland fire as well."
Slocum, in explaining his sponsorship, recalled a plethora of illegal fireworks going off within hearing distance of his house on the Fourth of July, and the relevance to the public's health and safety. "We don't need add to the chaos that's already going on on July Fourth," he said.
As for widening the ban to include ordinances by incorporated cities and towns, Slocum said he plans to talk with officials from a couple of communities "and see what the temperature is."
Mayors John Richards of Portola Valley and Chris Shaw of Woodside said they had no current plans to introduce ordinances. Shaw said he's more worried about fires sparked by vehicles and landscaping equipment operating in dry grass, and by lit cigarettes tossed or dropped by pedestrians.
Violations of the county ordinance would result in fines: $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second and $500 for subsequent incidents within one year.
Firefighters using a flame-throwing device in the line of duty would be exempt from the ordinance, as well as residents with permits to own flamethrowers.
Asked to comment on the Boring flamethrowers, Chief Dan Ghiorso of the Woodside Fire Protection District said he hadn't seen one but based on a description of a weapon-like device, said he didn't see any purpose for it other than seeking thrills.
"It doesn't sound like it has any practical application," Ghiorso said. He said he was "flabbergasted" and wondered what Musk was thinking when he decided to manufacture them.