As San Jose residents blasted their way through an arsenal of fireworks on July 4, Charlie Murray was frustrated.
The explosions rattled his Blossom Valley home and caused his 4-year-old Golden Labrador — Brody — to cower and whimper in terror. The next morning Murray spotted a bit of chalky ash on his daughter’s car — a souvenir from a night of anxiety-inducing pops, cracks and whistles.
A few days later, however, the more than 20-year San Jose resident was in for an even bigger surprise: A warning notice from the city informing him that he violated city code by selling or discharging fireworks.
Murray himself considered filing a complaint about the fireworks but decided against it, largely because there was such an overwhelming number of illegal displays that it was difficult to pick which ones he would cite.
“I just wasn’t expecting to be the one to get the citation,” Murray said.
Though illegal fireworks have long been an issue in San Jose on and around the July holiday, many say this year felt worse. Officials called off professional fireworks displays in the city this year due to the coronavirus pandemic — setting the stage for a bevy of cooped up do-it-yourselfers to try their hands at pyrotechnics.
With this in mind, the city tried to amp up awareness of its “Just Not Worth It” campaign which tracks complaints of illegal fireworks and aims to educate residents about its dangers, notably fire risks.
Now in its third year, the number of complaints received this year more than tripled from last year with 6,188 collected in 2020 compared with 1,946 in 2019.
This year’s fireworks also reportedly dealt more damage with 31 reported fires, including seven building fires, 18 vegetation fires, two vehicle fires and four trash fires.
Last year the city suffered 15 fires in total, including seven vegetation fires, one structure fire, two trash fires and five other small fires that occurred outside, according to the city’s data.
Data gathered from June 1 to July 5 of this year indicated the city delivered 94 warnings and five citations were issued or under review.
At least some of them, as in Murray’s case, appear to be delivered to the wrong addresses.
“Code Enforcement has received some concerns from residents who reported receiving a warning notice in error during this reporting period,” wrote San Jose Code Enforcement Division Deputy Director Rachel Roberts in an email to San José Spotlight. “The warning notices are issued to the property address provided in the online report which is sometimes reported incorrectly.”
This was a major problem two years ago when residents were unfairly getting hit with fines for fireworks they didn’t set off. City leaders at the time said they fixed the issue of erroneous citations by requiring residents to provide evidence when filing complaints about illegal fireworks, but it apparently did not resolve the problem.
In Murray’s case, the warning letter he received says any future violations occurring within 18 months can result in fines “without further notice,” at $500 for a first violation, $700 for a second violation and $1,000 for a third offense.
“It’s just presumed that you’re guilty,” Murray said.
The letter included a code enforcement phone number for questions. When Murray called the number, he says he reached a pre-recorded message about answering limitations spurred by the pandemic and a prompt to call the specific enforcement officer involved with his case directly.
There was no enforcement officer listed on the warning so Murray attempted to find a contact online to no avail. He tried the number again a few times and kept hitting the answering system.
When asked where residents can turn if they’ve received a warning from the city in error, Roberts said they can send an email to [email protected] or call (408) 535-7770. Roberts said staff is available 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to resolve issues or address concerns.
The number is the same one that Murray says he attempted to call and couldn’t reach anyone.
“I have spent several hours trying to find out how to challenge this ‘warning’ without any success,” Murray wrote in an email to San José Spotlight. “I have been convicted of breaking the law … without having been given any opportunity to defend myself.”
Contact Carina Woudenberg at [email protected] or follow @carinaew on Twitter.