Written By Chris Dolan and Eric St. John
This week’s question comes from Barry from San Francisco, who writes: Hello, I live in San Francisco, and it is starting to warm up. Whenever summer comes around, fireworks go off in my area. I was wondering, are fireworks legal in the Bay Area?
Thank you for writing in with your comments and questions. The simple answer is that fireworks are illegal in California and the Bay Area. There can be both criminal and civil penalties for possessing them or setting them off, especially if someone or something gets damaged in the process.
Digging into firework laws a bit more, we learn that in California, there are two categories of fireworks recognized by the law: “dangerous fireworks” and “safe and sane fireworks.”
Dangerous fireworks shoot, explode, move along the ground, or are moderate in size. These types of fireworks include Roman candles and firecrackers. Dangerous fireworks are always illegal in the Bay Area and all of California. The only exception is for licensed pyrotechnic operators who receive formal approval to put on a firework display, typically around holidays like the Fourth of July.
Safe and sane fireworks, such as small sparklers or snap caps, are small and do not explode, move, or fly. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection puts out a complete list of safe fireworks. Only licensed retailers can sell safe and sane fireworks, from June 28th to July 6th each year.
Firework laws in the Bay Area vary from county to county, but, in essence, all types of fireworks are illegal in all counties in the Bay Area. It is always illegal to give any fireworks, even safe and sane, to anyone under the age of 16. Solano and Sonoma County have an exception for safe and sane fireworks around the Fourth of July only.
There can be criminal and civil trouble for using fireworks, especially if someone gets hurt.
Criminally, violating firework laws carry penalties of up to 1 year in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. These criminal penalties can increase to a felony offense if someone is in possession of a large quantity of dangerous fireworks or uses them in an unsafe manner. A felony firework offense can result in up to 3 years in State prison and fines of up to $50,000. Various other charges tend to attach to firework cases, including dangerous or reckless burning, disturbing the peace, and even arson.
Civilly, if fireworks harm someone, they may have legal recourse through a personal injury lawsuit. This would involve making a claim that someone else’s negligence or intentional conduct using fireworks caused injuries.
So why are fireworks illegal, and what is this fuss about? Well, for many people, fireworks are a fun toy to play with. The reality is that fireworks are explosive, flammable, hazardous, and can cause life-altering injuries, even death. All it takes is one lapse of judgment to end up with lost appendages or an uncontrollable fire.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2019, U.S. emergency rooms treated over 10,000 individuals for fireworks related injuries. The injuries included burns to all parts of the body, lost fingers, loss of eyesight, hearing loss, shrapnel wounds, concussions, and death in the worst of incidents. The vast majority of these injuries occurred in the summer season.
Take sparklers, for example. Sparklers are typically seen as “safe” fireworks that children are given to wave around to see the sparks dance. But sparklers can burn up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit and cause thousands of burn injuries each year.
Beyond the physical damage they can cause, fireworks cause an average of 18,500 reported fires yearly, resulting in an average of $43 million in direct property damage. Californians must take the risk of wildfires seriously. The summer heat and use of fireworks do not mix well for wildfires and the use of fireworks should be avoided.
Although fireworks are illegal, the reality is that regardless of the law, people are going to be out and about using fireworks, especially around the Fourth of July. Our goal here at Dolan Law Firm is to prevent injuries and reduce the harm in our world. But we must acknowledge that people will violate the law and still engage in dangerous behaviors. So, here are some things to watch out for if you are around fireworks:
- Pyrotechnic experts will put on firework shows, it is safer to watch a professional set off fireworks rather than do it yourself.
- Never point fireworks at someone else, even if unlit; you should not place any trust in the explosive in your hand.
- Fireworks should never be modified or attempted to be modified. Any modification can cause a sudden combustion and is unpredictable. Modifying fireworks has resulted in extreme injuries and death.
- Even safe and sane fireworks, where legal, should only be used in an outdoor environment, away from trees, brush, buildings, and other flammable materials. Keep a bucket of water and a hose nearby in case of a fire or accident.
- If you are going to dispose of fireworks, soak them in water before placing them in any trash bin. If they are dangerous or illegal fireworks, call the authorities and allow them to dispose of them.
Above all else, be safe out there. Setting off fireworks may be perceived as a fun and joyous activity, but the reality is that fireworks are dangerous, and one mishap can result in life-changing injuries.
In San Francisco, you can call 311 to report the unsafe use of fireworks. If there is an immediate threat of injury or property damage, you can call 911 directly.