Illegal fireworks seized by the Santa Ana Police Department. Credit: Santa Ana Police Department

Illegal fireworks have always been a problem in Santa Ana around the Fourth of July. But last year, some neighborhoods resembled war zones, according to police Chief Carlos Rojas.

There were over 200 calls to police regarding fireworks complaints in an eight-hour period on the July 4th holiday, police say. Police brought in an extra 33 officers to help patrol – including Rojas — but the chief said it wasn’t enough to keep up.

At one point, Rojas said he tried to stop some people from setting off fireworks. But instead of heeding the command, they took aim at the police chief’s vehicle and opened fire. He retreated from the scene.

“It was chaos,” Rojas told the City Council at its regular Tuesday night meeting.

Figuring out a way to keep the chaos from erupting again is proving to be a challenge. Police officials say banning all fireworks – including the legal “safe and sane” variety — would make enforcement easier for officers because they won’t have to sort out the illegal from the legal while surrounded by smoke and fire.

But fireworks sales are a significant source of revenue for many of the city’s nonprofits, and council members are wary of impacting services for youth in a city already grappling with its worst gang violence in recent years.

They also expressed nostalgia about an annual American tradition. Council members recalled memories of lighting fireworks with their families around backyard barbeques, and talked about potentially losing another thread in the larger community fabric.

“We’re talking about millions of dollars we’d be taking away from the children of this community,” said Mayor Miguel Pulido. “The nonprofit issue is huge, but the families and fabric of the city is even bigger.”

Council members debated a few options at the meeting, including putting the question of a blanket ban to the voters at the November general election and taking a wait-and-see approach to how severe the problem is during this year’s holiday.

Councilman Sal Tinajero also proposed studying a regulatory fee for the legal fireworks industry to pay for increased enforcement around the holiday. Speaking to a fireworks business representative in the audience, Tinajero referred to the Spanish term “mochate,” which he said means to “cut a little slice.”

“You gotta cut a little slice to the city to continue to serve your product without hurting our quality of life,” Tinajero said.

The total cost to the city of handling the fireworks issue as it stands now is $188,590, according to a city staff report. That includes over $62,000 for police enforcement, and another expected $75,000 in toxic disposal fees levied by the city’s waste hauler, among other costs.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said he didn’t want to punt the issue because it gives a “false expectation to nonprofits that rely on us.” He said the city needs address the underlying problem – adequate enforcement resources – otherwise residents who want to see the ban will be angry at the nonprofits for preventing it.

“Some day somebody’s going to get hurt…” Sarmiento said.

“When a parent comes before us and says why didn’t we address it when we had the opportunity, that’s when we’re going to have to face the reality.”

Councilman David Benavides, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, asked that city staff come back with a “comprehensive plan” for education and enforcement. Pulido appointed himself and Benavides to an ad-hoc committee that’s going to work with nonprofits to find out how much revenue they earn from fireworks sales and study other strategies for dealing with the fireworks problem.

In the end, council members opted to punt the issue until after this year’s holiday and address it at their July 5th meeting, with the caveat that city staff work on Benavides’ request for a plan.

“Let’s roll up our sleeves right now, go out there and be as proactive as we can,” Pulido said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek

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