The task force, which includes the East Palo Alto and Menlo Park police departments and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, is working to prevent another record-setting season of illegal fireworks. The task force's crackdown comes as the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors approved a stricter ordinance for anyone caught with the explosives.
East Palo Alto police Cmdr. Jeff Liu said people won't necessarily notice the task force, which is operating in the city and in east Menlo Park, but already, there may be noticeable improvements. The 1,500-pound seizure of illegal fireworks that the task force has made thus far is "a lot," he added, and residents might notice the city seems quieter than last year.
On May 27, East Palo Alto sponsored a community town hall meeting to discuss its efforts and to work toward changing the culture that has led to the out-of-control explosions.
City council member Lisa Gauthier said the impact on her pets "is heartbreaking." The disruptive blasts, some of which happen as late as midnight and beyond, rattle windows and disturb her and other working residents' sleep, she said.
The fireworks problem is not unique to East Palo Alto. A CNN story from last year revealed a more than 2,000% increase in fireworks complaints in some cities nationwide, she noted. Officials suspect part of the increase was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and cancellation of public fireworks shows, which put commercial-grade explosives on the retail market.
The impact has been devastating for some families, veterans and pets.
East Palo Alto resident Casey Kellogg and her husband have two small children, ages 3 and 6. They spent many nights in the past eight years comforting their children. While the older child has grown accustomed to the noise, the 3-year-old has developed trauma as a result, Kellogg said.
"We spent most nights leading up to July 4 rocking her in her room: five, 10, 15 times a night. She has developed a sensitivity to other noises. She won't sleep without earplugs regardless of the time of day," Kellogg said.
Last year, they boarded up her bedroom window to dampen the sound, she said. The pediatrician said it sounds like their daughter has post-traumatic stress disorder. The family has now engaged a pediatric psychologist to address their daughter's sleep issues.
Dr. M. Raeem Ghorieshi, a Palo Alto psychiatrist, said he has seen many sides of the fireworks impacts, including triggering PTSD in patients. The person with PTSD can re-experience the trauma — what some call flashbacks — and the impact is devastating. He noted that many war veterans live in the community and on the Veterans Administration campus on Willow Road.
He has also seen the effects firsthand.
"My wife was a child during an armed conflict. It is extremely difficult. It brings up memories," he said.
Ghorieshi also has pets.
"If you can imagine a 130-pound German shepherd barking every time an explosion goes off," he said.
In addition, each explosion can pack a concussive force that can be felt before each colorful sparkle spans the sky. "You can hear and feel the lofting charge (the precursor that lifts the fireworks). It can be jarring," he said.
The fireworks have serious, detrimental impacts beyond noise, Gauthier noted. They create clouds of smoke that "contain harmful fumes and toxic dust that impact air quality," she said. In the current drought, the fireworks are especially dangerous and can set off wildfires, she added.
Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said firefighters and paramedics have responded to incidents that have led to house fires, car accidents and people losing limbs, noting last year someone lost an eye, he said. People have driven head-on into other cars while driving and looking up to view the colorful displays, he said.
"We've chased a lot of fires in this town. We've seen fingers and hands blown off," Schapelhouman said.
"It starts sooner now; the good news is there's less gunfire in the past," he said.
Menlo Park Fire Marshal Jon Johnston said last year, firefighters attended to three field grass fires ignited by fireworks. A small accessory dwelling unit also burned in Menlo Park.
Liu said police need the public to come forward and report the fireworks. While officers are responding to every call, the fleeting nature of these illegal acts makes it difficult for officers to catch someone in the act, a requirement for a citation. No fireworks are legal in East Palo Alto, including those considered "safe and sane." All have the potential to cause fires, he noted.
If people want to report an incident, they can contact the fireworks task force tipline anonymously at [email protected] or call or text 650-409-6792.
"We need the address where they are setting them off and the names of people," if people know which of their neighbors are causing the problem. "Photos and videos would be extremely helpful," he said.
Johnston showed a video of a home that exploded into a ball of flames in Ontario, California, due to fireworks storage. He said the distributors in East Palo Alto aren't as large as the one in Ontario, but they do exist. Liu said if residents notice a truck or van dropping off or delivering a load of fireworks, they should take down the license plate number and take a video with their phone if they can do so safely.
Concerned about a repeat of last year's devastating wildfires as the state experiences its second year of serious drought, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance on May 18 that makes possessing, storing, using or selling illegal fireworks a $1,000 fine for each violation, a tenfold increase over the previous fine for first-time offenses. The ordinance also holds owners accountable if violations occur on their property. The county's ordinance was last updated 35 years ago.
"Because of climate change and prolonged drought our fire season is longer and more dangerous than ever and that is why it is important to update our fireworks ordinance to prevent a catastrophic wildfire. Ultimately, fireworks can be the cause of fires, quickly becoming a health and safety hazard. With the danger of wildfire an ever-present concern, updating our ordinances to better deter against the use of illegal fireworks helps protect our forests, families, and communities," San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley, who co-sponsored the ordinance, said in a written statement.
The ordinance applies to the unincorporated areas of the county. Gauthier said the East Palo Alto City Council could consider updating its ordinance as well.
Fire officials and some residents said they feel people should be fined heavily but not be given criminal records. Instead, they hope to create a cultural shift so that residents who use fireworks illegally will come to understand their responsibility to their neighbors and to look out for each other.
Whether the culture behind the fireworks could shift due to incentives, relentless education or other programs, Johnston said it will take a decade to make meaningful change. That's not an impossible task.
East Palo Alto has set standards that have been taken up across the state. When the community lost nine members of a family to a fire on April 26, 1997, they helped inspire passage of statewide legislation that prohibited unreleasable burglar bars on home windows; a fire at the Green Oaks Academy school led to the 2002 Green Oaks Fire Protection Act (Green Oaks Family Academy Elementary School Fire Protection Act), which requires statewide automatic fire sprinkler systems and automatic fire alarm systems be provided in school construction projects, Schapelhouman said.
"East Palo Alto can be a trendsetter," in terms of changing the fireworks culture. "It can be something the community can be proud about," Johnston said.