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Deputies snuff out pyrotechnics

Citations issued for blatant violations of fireworks laws

Posted: July 5, 2009 9:31 p.m.
Updated: July 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Aguilera examines a box of shells and canisters of illegal fireworks and empty beer cans at Valencia Valley Elementary School's playground on Saturday night. Aguilera found multiple groups gathered at the playground watching the illegal fireworks display.

He could hear their popping, crackling and booming all around him.

He could smell their sulfuric stench out his window.

He even drove his patrol car through some of their smoky aftermath and over empty tubes and canisters that once contained them.

But as he whipped his car around several neighborhoods Saturday night, scanning for perpetrators of those illegal fireworks, Deputy Brandon Aguilera found it difficult to catch them all.

"There's only so much time and manpower. It's frustrating," Aguilera said as he responded to call after call of illegal fireworks in Newhall and south Valencia on the night of July Fourth. "And a lot of times, once you get out there to a location, they scatter."

Aguilera was one of a force of deputies, including eight additional staff, charged with responding to illegal firework activity all over the Santa Clarita Valley on the Fourth of July weekend. On Friday night, the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station received at least 30 calls about illegal firework activity and issued 12 citations and many warnings.

Although all fireworks that purchasers can set off themselves are illegal in the Santa Clarita Valley, Lt. Robert Lewis said citations, rather than warnings, come as a result of blatant violations or use of fireworks like mortars or large fountains which could cause serious injury or damage to the public or property.

"What (the deputies) really have been doing is warning them," said Cathy Hock, the watch deputy on duty Friday and Saturday nights. "We're not out there to just hammer people with citations. The goal is to educate them."

By the end of Saturday night, while deputies had responded to 139 calls regarding fireworks, only eight citations were issued, according to Sgt. Brian Allen.

Despite an evening that Aguilera described as "chasing your own tail," he had confiscated five batches of illegal fireworks and had given warnings to their perpetrators by 10 p.m. Saturday. He still had two hours to go.

The most unique find: a group of teen boys who gathered to watch their friend play with a homemade sparkler near Valencia Meadows Park.

A 17-year-old Valencia boy admitted to being the creator of the homemade concoction. He said he learned how to make it from a video.

"We put steel wool on a hanger and tap it with a battery. You swing it around and little sparks come out," said the boy. He stood in a Valencia neighborhood cul-de-sac swinging the hanger around as bright sparks flew around him.

"I don't think it's supposed to be a firework," he said.

Next to the box of steel wool and other makeshift sparkler materials sat a zipped-up lunch box. Aguilera ordered the boys to unzip the box, revealing a batch of illegal fireworks.

The boy and one friend claimed they didn't know their friend had brought illegal fireworks. By that time, the friend had taken off.

"We didn't want to do anything illegal," the boy said to Aguilera. "I didn't know these fireworks were there. It upsets me because I wasn't aware (a friend) brought the fireworks. I‘m really sorry about the fireworks there."

After confiscating the materials, Aguilera left the group with a warning and a lesson: "Let me ask you something. With all the fires here, do you think this is really a smart idea?"

"No, I don't, sir," came the responses.

Aguilera said he had never seen anything like the homemade sparkler before.

"There was no control. Did you see how they were just flinging that around?" he said. "That had the potential to be just as dangerous as illegal fireworks."

Deputy Aguilera drove the teen boys' confiscated creations to a local fire station, where he demonstrated their workings for Capt. Tony Clift and several firefighters. Clift said it was also his first time seeing a homemade sparkler.

"That could catch anything on fire," Clift said after watching Aguilera ignite the makeshift sparkler. "Obviously the sparks are a fire hazard, especially with the brush as thick and dry as it is right now. It wouldn't take much to ignite it."

Confiscated fireworks are turned over to Fire Department personnel, then stashed in a bunker to be disposed of, Clift said.

Around 9 p.m. Saturday, Aguilera was stalking the streets of the Polynesian Mobile Home park in Newhall, his patrol car lights off.

When he spotted smoke, firework shells or a group of huddled people, he shone his bright searchlight their way.

Resident Roger Quintanilla and his family weren't lucky enough to escape firework confiscation.

"I didn't know it was illegal," said Quintanilla, who was lighting firecrackers for his 1-year-old daughter on her first Fourth of July.

Quintanilla said he paid $50 for the firecrackers, which he bought "from a guy off the street."

One of the biggest busts of the night occurred on the Valencia Valley Elementary School playground.

It's a tradition that has gone on for years, according to local resident Steve Hessel, whose family joined several others on the playground.

But when Aguilera drove his patrol car onto the scene, most of the partiers scattered and all leftover fireworks were confiscated, including the grand finale. Hessel said he could understand the safety concerns but wasn't happy he couldn't light the fireworks he bought in Fillmore, a Ventura County city where fireworks are legal.

"I think it's a tradition since 1776 - I've been lighting fireworks on the Fourth every since I was 5 years old," Hessel said.

Hessel said he and the group considered the playground "a safe place to do it" and they had a bucket of water in case any accidents occurred.

"This is where everyone comes," Hessel said. "That's it - it won't be happening anymore."

The school's playground was covered with fireworks debris, like "Super Artillery Shells," along with empty beer cans.

"I look at it as a safety issue," Aguilera said. "Those are the same (fireworks) they're popping at the mall. They're at a school, to top it off, with kids right there, and then there's alcohol, too. You can see the potential for disaster.

"The tradition is not safe, it's not regulated and it's in a school."


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