San Jose: Illegal fireworks complaints more than triple amid pandemic
Fireworks are illegal in San Jose and most of Santa Clara County. Photo by Katie Lauer.

There was no escaping the cacophony of bangs, pops and crackles in San Jose on Saturday as cooped up residents let off steam during Independence Day by putting on their own fireworks displays.

Some residents admired the amateur pyrotechnics. “East side San Jose (is) putting on a better show than professionals ever have,” one Twitter user wrote. For others, the illegal fireworks jangled nerves with concerns surrounding fires, emergency room visits and anxious pets.

In fact, the number of complaints to the city’s annual “Just Not Worth It” campaign — which tracks complaints of illegal fireworks — tripled from 1,946 in 2019 to 6,188 so far this year.

In both cases, the reporting period ranges from June 1 to the weekend following the July 4 holiday. This year’s numbers reflected complaints received until July 5, so it’s possible they will continue to rise, explained Erica Ray, spokeswoman for the San Jose Fire Department.

Now in its third year, the “Just Not Worth It” campaign aims to educate residents on the dangers of illegal fireworks. Working in tandem with the fire department, the city — in advance of the holiday — offered a list of alternative activities families could try, such as camping in your backyard or using a smartphone to project a movie outside.

Ray said the fire department built partnerships with local neighborhood associations, councilmembers and school districts to spread the word bout the dangers of amateur fireworks.

While illegal fireworks have been an ongoing problem in San Jose for years, officials had more reason to worry this year. The professional shows were canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in more do-it-yourself attempts at home that could lead to fires and serious injuries.

“Many of the residents would be at a professional fireworks display,” Ray said. “Without those we knew that would be a challenge we wanted to address.”

However, the messaging appeared to be falling on deaf ears as residents reported massive displays from every corner of the city on Sunday, and to a lesser degree, in the weeks leading up to the holiday as well.

District 4 City Council candidate David Cohen said the fireworks were never-ending in his Berryessa neighborhood.

“I’ve never heard anything like it,” Cohen told San José Spotlight Sunday. “It was nonstop for hours. It was all around a steady booming sound.”

The longtime education leader said South Bay residents are frustrated because they are filing reports that don’t seem to be helping ease the blasts.

“The behavior doesn’t seem to be changing,” Cohen said. “We need to work with the fire department and police department and improve that so our communities are safer.”

San Jose’s enforcement efforts have faltered over the years. In 2017, city officials issued fines for illegal fireworks to residents based on an anonymous online complaint system. It turned out, some of those residents didn’t do anything wrong and the city was forced to reverse the citations. The new complaint system requires providing evidence, such as photos or videos, but some neighbors hesitate to “snitch” on each other.

This year, the fire department reported 31 fires in the city in the past month that were attributed to illegal fireworks, including seven building fires and 18 vegetation fires. Through the online reporting tool, the city had issued 94 warnings from June 1 to July 5. Five citations were issued or under review as of Sunday.

No injuries have been reported this year, but Ray says that could change as the numbers continue to come in.

Data for citations issued during the Fourth of July holiday by San Jose police is not yet available, according to a department spokesperson. It’s unclear if officers issued any $500 to $10,000 fines.

Ray said that city officials would discuss the hurdles and potentially brainstorm better solutions to curb illegal fireworks in the future.

“I think people understand that it’s a problem and it bothers residents. However, they disregard that,” Ray said. “We’ll definitely put our heads together and talk about the campaign (once it’s over).”

Contact Carina Woudenberg at [email protected] or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

Story has been updated to correct the number of complaints filed in 2019. We previously reported there was 1956 complaints in 2019 when there was actually 1946, according to the city’s records. 

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