By Aaron Bergh

Rivaling Christmas, Independence Day may be my favorite holiday. It’s a celebration of our founding countrymen’s refusal to comply with oppressive orders by a totalitarian monarch. Last year, Independence Day celebrations were almost canceled by wannabe autocrats who erroneously declared it was too unsafe to BBQ with friends outside in the open air and warm sun.

Although the ban on gatherings wasn’t attempted again this year, residents of Paso Robles and Atascadero were prohibited from a freedom-affirming activity almost as patriotic as adorning a pickup truck with Old Glory: lighting small cardboard tubes of gunpowder on fire to make loud sounds and pretty colors.

Getting through this together, Paso Robles

In Paso Robles, possessing or discharging fireworks is punishable by a $1,000 fine and a year in jail. At best, it’s an excessive punishment. At worst, it seems contradictory to American values to restrict how people celebrate their freedom as long as they aren’t hurting others. Further, there is little evidence that responsible firework use causes widespread damage and necessitates a ban.

Every year, fire departments are on heightened alert during the 4th of July to protect us from the errors of irresponsible fireworks users. I appreciate these community heroes more than ever for ensuring our safety as we celebrate our country.

I reached out to Paso Robles Battalion Chief and Fire Marshal Randy Harris to learn about the impact of fireworks on community safety. There were dozens of citations issued, and fireworks seized, but he was happy to report that there were no fireworks-caused fires or injuries reported.

To compare with a neighboring community that does allow fireworks, I also reached out to Fire Chief Tom Peterson of Templeton, where Safe and Sane fireworks (devices that do not fly or explode) are allowed. Despite widespread usage, the Templeton Fire Department also received no reports of firework injuries, and there was only one minor dumpster fire that was quickly extinguished.

Harris cited a US Consumer Product Safety Commission report that there were 15,000 injuries and 18 deaths due to fireworks usage in the US in 2020—a grim reminder that fireworks can seriously hurt people if not used responsibly, which is why safety education is tantamount. Of the 18 deaths in the entire country, half of the victims were found to be under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. Although sad and tragic, almost all the deaths were caused by avoidable human error: one victim attempted to fire a mortar from the passenger seat of his car while another victim attempted to launch a mortar from his head. None of the deaths were caused by Safe and Sane fireworks. 80 percent of firework injury patients were treated and released the same day.

While even Safe and Sane fireworks have the potential to seriously maim people, we (rightfully) don’t ban things like motorcycles, skis, alcohol, cigarettes, or guns – which are more dangerous.

I recently relocated to Paso Robles from Templeton and can attest the ban has not prevented fireworks use. For five days, my new home has been surrounded by the loud BANGS and bright flashes of mortars. To evade punishment, residents hide their fireworks usage – oftentimes in their backyards, in closer proximity to houses and landscaping. Admittedly, the extended duration has been tiresome, and the POPS are abrasive to pets and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) sufferers.

While Templeton allows the usage of fireworks, the community imposes restrictions that are severe but not unreasonable. Fireworks can only be used Jul. 1-4, and cannot be lit on school grounds, public parks, or areas with dry grass. If you cause a fire, you are liable for damages and suppression costs.

I’ve always been pleasantly surprised at how responsible Templeton fireworks users are. People use their Safe and Sane fireworks in the street—far away from any houses or brush that could catch fire. Garden hoses and buckets of water were kept on standby. When everyone is done, the fireworks are picked up and doused in water.

Although seemingly counter-intuitive, the irresponsible usage of fireworks in Paso Robles could be mitigated through legalization—at least of the Safe and Sane varieties—and education programs. The availability of Safe and Sane fireworks would curb the temptation to purchase more dangerous varieties from out of state. Celebrators would be able to use fireworks in safer places, like the street, instead of backyards. Allowing the temporary use of fireworks on July 4th would encourage people to “get it out of their system” in a single session instead of drawn-out disruptive blasts for days on end.

Fireworks aren’t just fun—their sales have a positive economic impact on the community. Sales taxes collected on fireworks purchases fund our police officers, firefighters, and schools. All firework stands in Templeton are operated by nonprofits that fund education.

When I lived in Templeton, I noticed fireworks brought the community together. Neighbors who otherwise didn’t interact with each other came together in the streets to create a spectacle of celebration, elation, and freedom. Although the restrictions on private firework usage seem relatively trivial, it doesn’t dismiss the irrationality of their criminalization. 

A commonsense approach to fireworks usage in Paso Robles and Atascadero would strengthen interpersonal relationships in the community and potentially avoid the adverse effects of illegal fireworks. It’s a conversation worth having in anticipation of next year’s Independence Day celebration.

Aaron Bergh is an independent opinion columnist for The Atascadero News and Paso Robles Press; you can email him at aaobergh@gmail.com.