By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Efforts to further regulate fireworks in Petaluma appear to be gaining momentum.
Shortly after July 4th, residents and city leaders shared anecdotes about seeing the skies above Petaluma alight with illegal fireworks.
Mayor David Glass said the illegal display he saw surpassed the official community-sponsored event at the fairgrounds.
According to the Fire Department, reports involving illegal fireworks are fewer, but the users of the banned incendiary devices may just be getting sneakier.
Fire Marshal Cary Fergus said the city’s fireworks ordinance is difficult to enforce because the users often mask the banned pyrotechnics with state-sanctioned “safe and sane” ones. They also sometimes duck into garages or shoot off airborne fireworks from their backyards.
“We have a hard time getting to them,” he said. “They’re getting pretty smart.”
Earlier this year, the City Council discussed changing how and when fireworks are sold in Petaluma, but it was too near the holiday to change city ordinances.
Fergus said four small fires this year were determined to have been started by fireworks, two of which were from state-approved fireworks. That compares to one fireworks-caused fire in 2010.
In all, police and firefighters responded to 80 calls involving fireworks during the four-day holiday. The recent high for calls was 172 in 2007, although the past two years have averaged 93 calls.
Four $1,000 citations were issued this year when authorities witnessed a group of men shooting off illegal devices near McNear Park. They were aged 29 to 33. Two of the men were Petaluma residents, Fergus said.
Glass said he would prefer all fireworks be banned in Petaluma, as they are in Santa Rosa and other cities. But he conceded that there likely isn’t community or City Council support to do that.
State-sanctioned fireworks are sold in four Sonoma County cities — Sebastopol, Cloverdale, Rohnert Park and Petaluma — mainly by community groups to support their fundraising efforts. The state-approved fireworks are restricted to non-flying, non-explosive devices designed to be safer than less-regulated fireworks.
In Petaluma, 18 booths operated this year, out of an available 22 permits. The city allowed four days of sales and one day of use. Rohnert Park allows five days of sales, which Petaluma nonprofit representatives say hurts them.
“That fifth day of sales is tremendous for us because it allows us to support so many things here in the city,” said Larry Finkel, assistant director of the McDowell Drug Task Force, noting the scholarships and anti-drug and alcohol efforts his group funds.
He said the problems are caused by illegal fireworks, not the ones his group and others sell.
“We have to remember, all fireworks do have the potential to start a fire,” Fergus said.
Glass said the city could look at requiring Petaluma booth operators to be Petaluma residents. Five of the 18 booth permit-holders this year were not.
Councilman Chris Albertson, the former Petaluma fire chief, said the city may discuss reducing the number of booth permits available.
Sebastopol allowed three renewable permits this year, but isn’t issuing others, which could eventually lead to no fireworks sales in the city, Fergus said.
The issue likely come before the City Council in the next few months.