Illegal firework usage on Fourth of July was much lower than last year in Santa Clara County, fire officials said, but there was still a concerning number of illegal fireworks set off throughout the county.

And San Jose was by far the worst offender, County Fire Department Information Specialist Luisa Rapport said.

Preliminary data found that there were 20-firework related incidents on July 4 this year, San Jose Fire Department spokesperson Erica Ray said.

The 20 firework-related incidents do not necessarily mean fires though.

“It could be EMS, it could be fire it could be any of the types of emergencies that we respond to,” Ray said.

She did confirm that there were some vegetation fires that the department responded to on the night of July 4 as well as a fence fire — meaning the fence between two houses caught on fire, which firefighters suspect is because of illegal fireworks.

On the holiday, San Jose police issued 10 citations and confiscated about 550 pounds of fireworks, Ray said.

The city also received 1,644 online reports during the reporting period (June 15-July 5, 2021), but it was much lower than 2020, where 6,601 were filed.

“I do still think there was quite a bit of unnecessary use of those illegal fireworks,” Ray said. “But I think that many in the community did heed those warnings, and refrain from using those illegal fireworks.”

Other cities followed similar pattern

Other local fire departments echoed that sentiment.

In Gilroy, the only city in Santa Clara County where specific fireworks during the Fourth of July weekend are legal, Fire Chief Jim Wyatt said firework activity must be down because the number of fires started went down by more than 50 percent.

In 2020, Gilroy had nine firework-related fires on Independence Day.

The Crews Fire, which burned 5,513 acres, also sparked during the early hours of July 5, 2020. The cause was suspected but not confirmed to be because of illegal fireworks.

This year, Gilroy only had four, all of which were vegetation fires and manageable, Wyatt said.

The fire chief said all the fires that sparked both in 2021 and 2020 were because of illegal fireworks. In Gilroy, safe and sane fireworks, which do not shoot up in the air and have a smaller amount on gun powder, are the only legal types of fireworks and they are only legal during that weekend.

“We were preparing for the worst. It just seemed like it was a perfect storm we were going into with the Fourth of July being over the weekend, and it just wasn’t so.”

Jim Wyatt, Gilroy fire chief

Those fireworks have been legal in the city for at least 25 years, he said, but really the city saw an uptick in fireworks usage in the last five years.

Their rise in popularity, compounded with the end of many pandemic-related restrictions, made many local fire departments worried for the Fourth of July weekend.

“We were preparing for the worst,” Wyatt said. “It just seemed like it was a perfect storm we were going into with the Fourth of July being over the weekend, and it just wasn’t so.”

He speculated that the reason residents reduced the use of illegal fireworks was because of the scary fire season Gilroy residents endured last year with both the Crews Fire and the SCU Lightning Complex.

“Those were the two biggest fires we’ve ever seen,” Wyatt said. “And I think the public knows pretty well now that we’re in a severe drought, which makes conditions even worse.”

YouTube video
Illegal July 4 fireworks light up the night in San Jose. (Video courtesy of Len Ramirez/YouTube)

Wildfires still fresh on their mind

That may be the same reason that the county fire department’s response area also did not experience as many illegal fireworks as San Jose, Rapport said.

“There are a lot of people that live in high-hazard severity zones and wildland urban interface areas that are, as we would hope, cognizant of that fact,” Rapport said.

She said the holiday weekend was like any other weekend for the county fire department’s response area which includes unincorporated areas of the county as well as the cities of Campbell, Los Gatos, Saratoga, Cupertino, Los Altos, and Monte Serrano.

In fact, the fire department did not even track or analyze data because there wasn’t an uptick in calls.

“Typically, if we see any sort of increase or uptake in our call volume … we will highlight that,” Rapport said. “But as we didn’t see that, we’re not going to aggregate data that basically doesn’t exist.”

She said normally on Fourth of July, the county’s fire department helps San Jose respond to their high number of calls.

Last year was especially bad because of the high number of fires including the Park Fire that burned about 350 acres in San Jose and Morgan Hill as a result of illegal fireworks launched on July 4.

This year, however, San Jose did not need the mutual aid.

‘A manageable workload’

Cal Fire also did not have to offer mutual aid to Santa Clara County or its cities.

In fact, the Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit, which spans over five counties including Santa Clara County, only responded to two fires.

“We still had a few fires, but nothing of any real significance,” said Dwight Good, Assistant Chief for Cooperative Fire Protection at Cal Fire SCU. “And it was a manageable workload, which was an improvement over last year.”

He said this year, there were only about 75 acres burned across the unit on the Fourth of July — the biggest fire being in Contra Costa County.

Last year, Cal Fire responded to four fires on July 4 and those were much larger.

Good said he thinks the number of illegal fireworks went down because “citizens were more vigilant in the use of fireworks due to the high fire danger throughout the state.”

Still, many thought the illegal fireworks were out of control.

In San Jose, the fireworks polluted the air enough to change the air quality from good to moderate, according to IQAir.

Assemblymember Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, also took to Twitter to express his outrage at the number of fireworks erupting throughout the city.

“The fireworks are completely out of control,” Kalra tweeted. “There’s no sympathy for veterans or others with acute sensitivity to sounds of explosions. And, the pets & wildlife. This is sheer torture for the animals. I’ve never heard it this bad before and that says a lot being in San Jose.”

The impact of illegal fireworks is still not clear, Ray said, but by August the city will have a better count of all firework-related incidents. Ray said the timeline for more firework-related data will likely look the the same for other local jurisdictions.