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Ventura County

Patrols to Monitor Use of Fireworks

Holiday: Ventura County fire chief is recruiting the volunteers to help prevent blazes.

June 21, 2002|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He can't stop Fillmore from selling fireworks. But Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper has a warning for those who set them off outside the city: Someone may be watching.

As Southern California faces what may be its worst fire season to date, the fire chief in this brush-covered county is activating a brigade of "citizen arson patrols."

Equipped with notepads, pens, radios and cellular phones, about two dozen volunteers will roam Ojai, Thousand Oaks and other fire-prone areas during Fourth of July week. They will jot down the license plate numbers of suspicious vehicles parked in the woods and call authorities to report any fireworks sightings.

No doubt, some volunteers will face the ire of Independence Day revelers who will question their patriotism. With the help of his patrols, Roper said, authorities will confiscate fireworks and issue citations with a vengeance.

Violators face a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to one year in jail for unauthorized use of so-called safe-and-sane fireworks. Jail time and fines of up to $5,000 may be imposed if the fireworks are among the more powerful kind banned by the state.

"We're going to be out there in an enforcement mode more than we've been in the past," Roper said. Of the wide range of devices he is prepared to seize, he said, "We don't care whether they're 'safe and sane' or illegal. They're an ignition source."

In California, the state fire marshal has approved a list of safe-and-sane fireworks. These are safer than fireworks prohibited by the state because they do not explode, dart across the ground or lift into the air. Still, they burn at high temperatures and have started fires.

Local jurisdictions, however, have the power to ban the sale and use of all fireworks within their boundaries, including the types approved by the state. In California, 229 cities allow safe-and-sane fireworks.

Fireworks Caused Fires

Fillmore is the only city in Ventura County that allows them. In recent years, at least nine fires throughout the county have been sparked by fireworks, with the largest burning 4,300 acres in the Ojai Valley in 1999. Firefighting costs have totaled more than $5.6 million.

For years, residents throughout the county and the San Fernando Valley have flocked to Fillmore's fireworks booths, run by civic groups, to stock up for block parties in their own neighborhoods. They are violating the law, but it's a law authorities say is difficult to enforce.

This year, California, Colorado and other Western states have been swept by brush fires, including a 22,000-acre blaze that began June 1 in Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai. As a result, Roper said he is serious about keeping fireworks away from amateurs.

The county Board of Supervisors earlier this month urged Fillmore officials to halt roadside sales altogether. City officials declined, arguing that it is unfair to punish local civic groups that earn thousands of dollars from fireworks sales. They also said banning safe-and-sane fireworks would only encourage use of the illegal kind.

With no power to regulate sales in Fillmore, Roper has shifted his focus to fireworks enthusiasts who live outside the city. He printed 25,000 fliers--which the city has agreed to distribute with each fireworks purchase--notifying customers that their items can be confiscated the minute they leave Fillmore's city limits.

Authorities won't be pulling drivers over to inspect their trunks. But if the citizen arson patrol spots anyone with fireworks, it's their job to report them.

Most of the patrols were culled from the county sheriff's disaster assistance teams and have training dealing with earthquakes, fires and searches for missing people. Fire Department spokeswoman Sandi Wells said the county's first arson patrol was formed in 1993, after a spate of fires burned across eastern portions of the county.

Since then, volunteers have been called out a few times but keep a low profile. No arrests have been made based on tips from the patrols, but Wells said this year's is the best-organized effort yet.

Thousand Oaks resident Helen Tallen is one of the volunteers. The 50-year-old Montessori school teacher leads her local disaster assistance response team. She has searched for missing people and helped authorities manage a compost fire, but this will be her first stint on the arson patrol.

Tallen has fond memories of July 4 celebrations, but also remembers, as a little girl, injuring her father when he gave her a sparkler to play with.

Too Many Homes at Risk

"If they're in the wrong hands, they're dangerous," Tallen said. "This is such an extreme drought time for us. It's nothing to be playing with, especially this year."

She isn't expecting any grief from neighbors. On the contrary, Tallen said, homeowners will be thanking her.

"We're right up against the wilderness," she said. "Everybody in this neighborhood is very much on the same page. No fireworks. Nobody wants to see this neighborhood go up in flames, and we could very easily."

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