SAN JOSE -- The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday decided to crack down harder on illegal fireworks by holding property owners responsible for the growing problem.

"It sounds like a war zone out there in some neighborhoods," Supervisor David Cortese said. "But when officers get there the people scatter, and the property owners plead ignorance."

Cortese's proposal, which the board approved unanimously, asks county lawyers and managers to come up with a set of laws and fines aimed at property owners who shoot off fireworks or allow others to do so. Cortese hopes to have the ordinance on the books well before next year's Independence Day.

"Frequently, when people see the police cars they run," said Sgt. Curtis Stenderup, a spokesman for the county Sheriff's Office. "We're left with the remnants of the fireworks."

Increasingly, the night skies in the South Bay and rest of the Bay Area are lighting up with forbidden rockets and pinwheels. Powerful firecrackers and mortar-type devices produced some gruesome holiday injuries this year.

A San Jose man in his 40s lost both his hands when fireworks he was holding prematurely exploded. In Sunnyvale, a mortar-type device blew off the fingers of two men who were trying to light it. In Santa Cruz, a 15-year-old from Livermore severely injured his hand after he lit fireworks that launched shrapnel at his stomach. A 24-year-old Gilroy man suffered an injury when a mortar-style device exploded in his right hand as he was lighting it.


Advertisement

Only 15 cities in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz County allow the sale and use of state-approved "safe and sane" fireworks that typically amount to small fountains of sparks. Cortese's ordinance would apply to those sanctioned fireworks, too, but he said he's more interested in cracking down on powerful, illegal fireworks. These include rockets the burst high in the sky, cherry bombs, M-80 explosives and firecrackers.

"You can see sparkles from rockets falling down the roofs of peoples's homes," he said.

State authorities recently reported a sharp increase in confiscated illegal fireworks, a result of the increase in black-market smuggling and sales and of stepped-up enforcement efforts to stop it.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 65 percent of fireworks-related injuries reported in 2013 happened on or around Independence Day and resulted in a daily average of 240 trips to emergency rooms across the United States. That included eight deaths. Hands and fingers were the most injured body parts.

Cortese and some San Jose officials, including Mayor Chuck Reed, have said large, illegal fireworks displays have grown out of control. Some of the most notorious -- and spectacular -- illegal displays occur in Alviso, a city neighborhood at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay. Cortese suspects that at least some of the Alviso fireworks are being fired from county patches in the neighborhood or from lots owned by county agencies. In some cases, he said, fireworks shot from city properties could be landing on county land. He's asking county lawyers to sort out such details to give his proposal the "longest arm" and reach possible.

He said the ordinance might be patterned after the county's "social host" law, which supervisors passed in 2008 to hold property owners responsible for underage drinking parties. That law includes fines ranging from $350 to $700, and charges for the cost of sending public safety personnel to the scene.

Cortese said the county doesn't have enough sheriff's deputies to chase down the culprits who fire off the illegal fireworks. The next best way to stem the problem, he said, is to hold property owners responsible.

"They can't say they don't know who they are," Cortese said. "That's not an allowable excuse anymore."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.