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Illegal fireworks in Mid-City spark irritation and fear

In Los Angeles' Mid-City, residents say illegal fireworks on the Fourth of July make it like a war zone. Where are the police?

July 10, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • A Mid-City resident displays the remnants of illegal fireworks he gathered from the street after wild Fourth of July displays by do-it-yourself pyrotechnicians.
A Mid-City resident displays the remnants of illegal fireworks he gathered… (Steve Lopez / Los Angeles…)

It's not that he isn't patriotic. But Shai Levy, a Mid-City resident, doesn't look forward to Independence Day.

"On Fourth of July, it's like Beirut here. Or Falloujah," he said of the massive, deafening illegal fireworks displays launched by his neighbors near Fairfax north of the 10 Freeway.

And he's not alone.

"I was driving home on the Fourth, on Pico, and thought I was in a war zone," said another Mid-City resident, L.A. city attorney spokesman Frank Mateljan, who saw people setting off fireworks from the middle of the street. "They were going fast and furious, and they were literally going right above the car. It was a little frightening. I just kept driving."

Home fireworks are illegal in Los Angeles, and there is no shortage of sanctioned, professionally conducted Fourth of July shows. But that doesn't stop the amateurs, who have been lighting up the sky for years across the city, particularly in Echo Park and surrounding neighborhoods. Some residents say the only change has been that the fireworks displays are bigger, louder and longer than ever, frightening pets, waking toddlers and spiking fears about accidental fires.

On the website Eastsider L.A., a lively exchange ensued last week as residents reviewed another long night of chest-pounding explosions, with references to a war zone and fireworks being used to cover the sound of gunshots.

"I have to say — you can tell the economy has picked up," wrote a Silver Lake resident. "A lot more and a lot of very spectacular illegal fireworks this year."

If you're asking yourself why the city doesn't burn to the ground when so many knuckleheads are playing with fire, the answer is that maybe we're just lucky. In Buena Park this year, fire officials are blaming a bottle rocket gone astray for a raging house fire.

I think we can all agree that one long, crazy night of pyrotechnics is not a huge deal in the grand scheme. But it's one of those quality-of-life issues that can rattle nerves, and it does raise a question. Where are the police?

"There are fireworks laws on the books and they are not being enforced," said Allan DiCastro, past president and current board member of the Mid-City Neighborhood Council.

DiCastro said pre-Fourth meetings with the LAPD haven't made the situation any better despite promises from police.

"If they started to write tickets here and there, on every block, believe me, the word would get out and it would come to a stop."

So what about it, LAPD?

"The biggest thing is prevention," said Cmdr. Andrew Smith, LAPD spokesman. "We'd rather prevent it than going around citing people."

This year, in an annual ritual, police, fire and other public officials reminded everyone that fireworks are illegal in Los Angeles. If that failed?

Our new City Atty. Mike Feuer promised there'd be swift prosecution of offenders.

But was there?

Smith said citywide numbers on citations aren't available yet, but 8,000 pounds of fireworks were confiscated. As for the Wilshire division, he said, there were 58 fireworks-related calls, and 17 officers, as well as two sergeants and a lieutenant, were assigned exclusively to "fireworks reduction."

The result?

On 18 calls, "people got warnings and in some of those cases, fireworks were confiscated."

And two people were cited for illegal fireworks possession.

Really? Just two, despite hours-long displays that sounded like aerial bombing campaigns?

"Remember, people shooting off fireworks don't usually stick around when the LAPD guys roll up," said Smith.

He recalled working in San Pedro on Fourth of July many years ago and coming upon hordes of people launching fireworks at Cabrillo Beach.

"We confiscated what we could, but it was a little overwhelming, to be honest with you. When you have hundreds of people shooting hundreds of things in the air, if you drive up in a black-and-white, people drop what they have."

Dennis Revell, spokesman for a company that sells so-called safe-and-sane fireworks — which are legal in many California cities, but not in Los Angeles — said a good percentage of illegal fireworks come from Nevada. And throughout California, he said, gangs have been known to get in on the action.

"Illegal fireworks importation and resale has been a very large source of income for gang operations," Revell said.

"That's a possibility," said Smith, who had no direct knowledge of gang involvement. But if you can load a truck with fireworks in Nevada "and drive four hours to L.A., I'm sure more than gang members are doing it."

Tuesday morning, I visited a man who said his street south of Washington Boulevard was the launching pad for an hours-long show featuring a deafening array of professional-quality explosive devices that arced high and wide across the sky. He collected remnants from the next morning's debris, some of them nearly the size of traffic cones.

The man didn't want his name used, for fear of reprisals from the culprits, and the same applied to a woman who lives near him.

"We called the cops and they didn't show up. It took us three calls to get an actual dispatcher," said the woman. "They said OK, we'll try to send someone out."

But she didn't see any police on the street, and the show went on, deep into the night.

"It's not a peaceful night around the neighborhood," said the woman, who called the house-rattling concussions massive. "It's a torturous night for neighbors and animals."

Clearly, the prevention strategy is a bust, so maybe next year they ought to launch a plan that makes "swift prosecution" more than lip service.

The guy with the fireworks debris had one scary-looking, empty shell called Shogun Crackling Saturn Missiles, which features 200 canisters of explosives.

"WARNING," said an advisory. "SHOOTS FLAMING BALLS."

It's pretty amazing we didn't lose a neighborhood or two.

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