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Why many illegal fireworks could disappear in California on July 4th

For eight years, Mike Salazar has been selling fireworks in an empty parking lot in Vernon during the week of the Fourth of July. His truck is packed floor to ceiling with boxes of small fireworks, rockets and $500 worth of pre-made show packages.

Jenna Peterson

CalMatters

“There were times up until the Fourth of July when we sold out of everything and were out of here by 2 p.m.,” Salazar said. “I try to close, and people come by and say, 'I'll buy whatever's left!'”

The booth is one of hundreds across the country owned by TNT Fireworks, a company with $110 million in sales in California that is already the largest retail fireworks distributor in the country.

Now the company is trying to get a tougher crackdown on illegal fireworks in California, including those from Nevada – and thus potentially boost its sales.

While “safe and sensible” fireworks – including sparklers, smoke balls and noisemakers – are legal in many California cities, projectile and explosive fireworks are illegal throughout the state.

More than 120 tons of illegal fireworks have been seized in California so far this year, which is “well above” the average, Fire Commissioner Daniel Berlant said at a news conference Tuesday. Last month, police seized 75 tons of illegal fireworks from a warehouse in Gardena – the largest seizure in California history.

“It's a glaring, shocking example of how the problem has gotten to such proportions that there's a lot more of it in this state and something needs to be done about it,” said Dennis Revell, CEO of Revell Communications, which represents TNT Fireworks.

Every year on July 4th, police and fire departments are inundated with calls about illegal fireworks.

According to Revell, many illegal fireworks come from stores in Nevada counties where all fireworks are legal – some just eight miles from the California border.

In 2021, Los Angeles police set off 16 tons of illegal fireworks found in a South Los Angeles home, injuring 17 people and leaving neighborhood residents homeless. The city just reached a $21 million settlement with the affected families. The owner of the fireworks said he bought most of them from Area 51, a store in Pahrump, Nevada.

Seeking an agreement with Nevada

Since January 2023, TNT Fireworks has spent more than $300,000 lobbying the California Legislature, governor's office, fire commissioner, Cal Fire and the attorney general's office, according to the State Department. The company has donated nearly $7,000 to campaigns this election, including $2,000 to Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Coachella Democrat and author of House Bill 1403, the focus of its lobbying efforts.

Last year, the legislature passed the bill and Governor Gavin Newsom signed it, doubling the amount of fines for illegal fireworks. The maximum amount – for possession of at least 5,000 pounds – rose from $50,000 to $100,000.

An earlier version of the bill reserved a portion of the state sales tax on “safe and sane” fireworks to fund a statewide crackdown on illegal fireworks. But that provision was removed, and Revell then came up with a new plan that he proposed to a fire marshal's advisory committee: California and Nevada should work together to stop illegal fireworks sales sooner.

Fireworks stores in Nevada are already required to log information about their customers, including their identification. Through an interstate agreement, Revell said, Nevada could require stores to enter that information into a state database and notify California police when a California resident purchases fireworks that are illegal here.

The proposal is now in Berlant's hands for review, and if it moves forward, Berlant will submit it to Governor Gavin Newsom's office, which will discuss it with Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo.

Newsom has signed other intergovernmental agreements, including a 2020 deal with four western states to curb the economic impact of Covid-19 and a 2022 deal with the governors of Oregon and Washington and the premier of British Columbia to combat climate change.

Because of that history, Revell believes Newsom will be receptive to a deal with Nevada. “I wish there was a better solution, but it's the best we could find under the circumstances,” Revell said.

If the treaty requires approval from the Nevada legislature, it will be suspended until 2025.

“We have a very short window of opportunity to get this done, and we fully expect that the majority of fireworks stores in Nevada will fight this proposal if legislation is required to do so, as it could potentially impact their business,” Revell said.

The same worries, on a smaller scale

Some California cities have banned fireworks entirely—even those considered “safe and reasonable.” These cities include Los Angeles, San Diego, and Long Beach.

Vernon is just outside of Los Angeles and has a population of just 222, according to the 2020 census. But Salazar — treasurer of the Rotary Club of Rio Hondo-Vernon — said his fireworks truck makes about $12,000 to $15,000 each year.

“Our advantage is that a lot of people come to us from the Valley, because it's illegal there,” Salazar said. “We're literally the first ones off the highways.”

Mike Salazar of the Rotary Club at a Safe and Sane fireworks booth in the City of Vernon on July 2, 2024. (CalMatters/Ted Soqui)

Salazar said “safe and sensible” fireworks should be legal across the state. Many TNT stands are run by nonprofits — such as the Rotary Club — that share the proceeds with the company. Under AB 1403, cities that allow the sale of legal fireworks will receive 7% of their profits to be used for local efforts to combat illegal fireworks.

“Not only are you taking away revenue from most of the nonprofits in the area that could be making a decent amount of money and doing something good for the community,” Salazar said, “but you're also losing that tax.”

“The perfect recipe for disaster”

On the other hand, safety when handling fireworks is always a problem.

And the state fire service is warning California residents about the dangers of setting off fireworks amid a heat wave with temperatures reaching triple digits, when the risk of wildfires is already elevated. Seven California counties are under wildfire warnings, and two wildfires broke out in Northern California on Tuesday morning. Several cities have canceled their Fourth of July Independence Day fireworks displays.

In a press conference on Tuesday, state fire officials said some “safe and sensible” fireworks, such as sparklers, can reach temperatures of up to 12,000 degrees.

Californians who use “safe and sensible” fireworks this holiday should avoid setting them off near flammable objects or vegetation.

“The dry grass, vegetation throughout the state, coupled with triple-digit temperatures and wind is a perfect recipe for disaster,” Berlant said.

About the author

Jenna Peterson joins CalMatters as an intern on the politics team through the Dow Jones News Fund's digital media program. She recently graduated from the University of Southern California with majors in journalism and political science. While at USC, she served as editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan and interned at VTDigger, LAist, and the Los Angeles Times.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to educating California politics.