For many, the Fourth of July is not complete without shooting off a few fireworks to commemorate the holiday and America's independence.
But fire officials say this season's near-record low rainfall, combined with steady and intense heat, is increasing the risk that patriotic celebrations could touch off major fires.
"Conditions are so dry that even the tiniest spark makes it much easier for a fire to grow," said Daniel Berlant, a Cal Fire spokesman.
Firefighters throughout the state have already been much busier than usual. To date, Cal Fire has responded to more than 2,700 fires in 2014, about 900 more than the average number for this time of year. This week 1,000 firefighters have been battling a wildfire of unknown cause in Napa County.
Only 15 cities in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz County allow the sale and use of so-called "safe and sane" fireworks. But in other cities, illegal fireworks use is so rampant and brazen that officials say some neighborhoods are like "war zones."
The elevated fire danger also comes at a time when fire departments have been weakened by budget cuts. Earlier this week, about 60 percent of the on-duty San Jose firefighters responded to two fires on the same afternoon, leaving just a handful of units to protect the rest of the city and requiring mutual aid from neighboring departments.
"We can only do what we can with the resources we have," said San Jose fire Capt. Cleo Doss. "We have to be prepared, keep our eyes open. There's no special tricks or anything that we can do. We just have to try and do what we can to keep people safe."
San Jose, one of the majority of the cities in the Bay Area that do not allow the sale of fireworks, will have full Fire Department staffing throughout the weekend, including extra engines on hand during peak hours on the Fourth to try to squash any potential fire threats.
Police departments throughout the East and South Bays have also said they will increase their patrols to help keep safety up and crime down.
Berlant said the potential for a major wildfire always increases over the Fourth of July and summer in general because so many people are outdoors camping or barbecuing.
For those who buy what have been deemed "safe and sane" fireworks in the designated cities -- including Union City, Dublin and Newark in Alameda County and Gilroy in Santa Clara County -- fire officials are pleading with the public to use them in those cities and to not bring them back into areas where fireworks of any kind are not allowed.
That's the case in Contra Costa County, where fireworks are not legal in any of the cities or the unincorporated area. But officials know people will be setting off fireworks anyway. Just last week over 2,500 pounds of illegal fireworks were confiscated in Antioch. Contra Costa Fire District Capt. George Laing said crews were working around the clock to complete weed abatement work orders and inspections to try to keep potential fuel at a minimum.
Laing said that in 2013, there were "too many" reports of fireworks around Contra Costa County and that more often than not, people end up getting hurt rather than going out and enjoying preplanned fireworks shows.
"I have been out on the Fourth and seen kids challenging each other to jump over Roman candles," Laing said. "Last year, we had guys working on a grass fire and there were people up the hill, lighting fireworks above their heads."
Instead, people should head to a preplanned shows coordinated by professionals and monitored by fire crews, fire officials say. Those fireworks are also usually shot over water, allowing any falling embers to be extinguished as they land.
The risk of injury from illegal and homemade fireworks is underscored in statistics from the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which state that 65 percent of fireworks-related injuries reported in 2013 occurred in the month surrounding the Fourth of July, producing a daily average of 240 trips to emergency rooms across the United States. That includes eight deaths. Hands and fingers were the most-injured body parts.
Melinda Krigel, spokeswoman for UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, said most of the fireworks injuries they treat happen after Independence Day.
"After a few days, leftover fireworks are often left unsupervised and kids can get at them and injuries occur," Krigel said in an email.
Bonnie Terra, the fire marshal for Alameda County, said this year was no different in terms of being diligent and making sure people are safe when using anything fire related, be it fireworks or barbecues. She said the difference this year, and the challenge, is that there is absolutely no margin for error. If something sparks and it lands on dry vegetation, the likelihood of a fire starting is high.
Redwood City Fire Marshal Jim Palisi echoed Terra's concerns.
"I'm nervous every year," he said. "Every year we catch people, and they just don't seem to learn. Fireworks are outlawed for a reason."
Follow Katie Nelson at Twitter.com/katienelson210.
There are only 15 cities in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz County where "safe and sane" are legal to buy and use.
Alameda County: Dublin, Newark, Union City
Contra Costa County: None
Mendocino County: None
Napa County: St. Helena
San Mateo County: Pacifica; San Bruno
Santa Clara County: Gilroy
San Francisco County: No
Santa Cruz County: Watsonville
Solano County: Dixon, Rio Vista, Suisun City
Sonoma County: Cloverdale, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol
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