Despite a complete ban on fireworks in Alameda County, Oakland’s skies are filled with fiery mortars on a nightly basis for weeks on end during the summer, especially on the Fourth of July holiday.
Unlike professional shows, these colorfully sonic bursts happen at all hours of the day and can range from whistling bottle rockets to cakes, which are large prepackaged boxes of mortars and giant sprinklers that belch sulfur fire high into the air. Mortars, which work like canons, are especially popular because they can lob a ball of explosives a hundred feet or more into the sky before it detonates into a rainbow shower of sparks.
The Fourth of July itself is a full-day pyrotechnical extravaganza: neighbors take to the streets to one-up one another with streetcorner shows, blasting off hundreds and even thousands of dollars worth of munitions.
But for many people with sound-sensitive family members—including children, people with PTSD, and pets—the summer, and especially the Fourth of July, is a time to escape Oakland for someplace quieter, if possible. It’s also when more pets end up in local animal shelters than any other time of the year.
The Oaklandside asked locals about their opinions on Oakland’s love-hate relationship with fireworks. Those who responded had two central concerns: how the noise affects people and pets and the fire danger. Others didn’t think the topic was worth a reporter’s attention, but the fact is, fireworks are a divisive issue in Oakland.
The noise from fireworks is distressing to pets
Most fireworks clock in at 125 to 155 decibels, about the same as a jet engine or gunshot.
Oakland residents who dislike fireworks say it’s the timing of the blasts—from broad daylight to early morning hours—and how fireworks season begins a month or more before July 4 that bothers them most.
“From a person with PTSD,” one Oaklander shared on NextDoor, “Please stop with fireworks other than on the 4th.”
Many said it would be less stressful if it was more concentrated, not pops, bangs and downright explosions going off regularly every day and night for a month all over the city’s flatlands.
Oakland’s pet population is probably the single largest group that wishes the Fourth of July would be a little quieter, or at least not a month-long celebration.
Karalyn Aropen, vice president of operations at the East Bay SPCA, says the Fourth of July is the day when her group takes in the highest number of stray and distressed animals because so many pets are left outside and try to run away from the loud noises. She says pet owners should keep their animals indoors on July 4.
“Obviously this time of year is a challenging time for pet owners,” Aropen said.
Since this is the first Fourth of July for many pet owners who found their new companions during shelter-in-place, Aropen warned that some pets can act differently when scared, which could include nipping or biting.
But despite what some people think, Aropen said being kind to your pets when they’re scared of loud noises doesn’t reinforce unwanted behavior. “It’s absolutely okay to comfort your animal,” she said.
Other ways of showing comfort include creating a safe area near the center of your home, like a bedroom, while playing some kind of white noise. Aropen recommends classical music. “Anything that tunes out the fireworks,” she said.
For Heidi Bennett, who lives in Fruitvale with her husband and Poki, her 11-year-old Tibetan Spaniel, the Fourth of July follows a typical pattern. She used to board Poki for the days surrounding the 4th, but now she cranks up the TV or turns up the air filter in their bedroom to create white noise while Poki wears her thundershirt.
“It is a real f’ing bummer to have professional-grade fireworks in the neighborhood for approximately a month’s time,” Bennett told The Oaklandside. “Last night, I observed neighbors clapping and cheering for it and realized, duh, other folks are enjoying this. It’s pretty to see, for sure.”
The fire danger is extreme and getting worse
Fireworks, it should go without saying, literally launch flaming explosives into the sky.
People who live in the hills above Oakland get some pretty spectacular views of official and non-sanctioned firework displays, but the flaming skies are also a source of concern.
Morgan Fletcher lives in the Oakland hills about half a mile from Joaquin Miller Park, a place he describes as being “choked with fuel” because of the dense trees and brush that haven’t burned in decades.
“Fireworks are traumatic for me and my family because all it takes is one spark and we’re all going to go,” he said, adding he recently found remnants of fireworks someone lit at the entrance to the park.
“With this drought, it’s going to be a lot of misery if one of these fireworks ignites a tree,” Fletcher said.
The Oakland police and fire departments have put out a joint video PSA illuminating the dangers of using fireworks.
“Illegal fireworks and celebratory gunfire have no place in our city,” police officer Felicia Aisthorpe says in the video.
While Oakland has some fire stations set up so people can drop off any unwanted fireworks, Los Angeles has launched a program where the city will buy back people’s fireworks in exchange for gift cards.
Oakland police recently announced the seizure of 165 pounds of fireworks with names like “Skull Crusher,” “Fo Show,” and “One Bad Granny” that an Oakland resident was allegedly selling out of the back of a utility truck at 73rd and Garfield avenues.
Police say neighbors tipped them off. They did not respond to other questions about their fireworks abatement efforts. But the Oakland Fire Department has issued information about street closures on the Fourth of July weekend, including closure of much of Grizzly Peak Boulevard and streets around Lake Merritt.
The thrill comes with danger
Fireworks have become a part of many celebrations in Oakland, including A’s games, Juneteenth, and even protests. But there’s no day they’re used more than the Fourth of July, when people gather in the streets and take part in fireworks show battles with neighboring blocks.
One West Oakland resident, who didn’t want their name used because fireworks are illegal, says they’ve been participating in fireworks shows for the last seven years but will be staying in a hotel outside of Oakland this year. Last year, someone carelessly lit an M80—a small but powerful explosive—on a patio umbrella close to them and they were hit with debris. The explosion was so close it sent literal shockwaves through their body.
They went to the hospital for their injuries, but said “it could have been worse,” considering the power contained in some larger fireworks.
That incident was one of an estimated 10,300 fireworks-related injuries that were treated in emergency rooms in the United States in a one-month period ending in July 21, 2020, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The report said the cancelling of professional firework shows due to the pandemic could have spurred people to handle fireworks on their own, resulting in a 50% increase in firework-related deaths and injuries compared to the year before. The report states that only 12 deaths in the United States last year “were associated with firework misuse.”
Because of last year’s incident in West Oakland, neighbors are being “a shred more careful this year,” the resident said.
The National Safety Council recommends leaving fireworks to trained professionals, but offers safety tips to those who still choose to purchase and use fireworks, like firing them away from people, houses, and flammable material, and never allowing young children to handle them.
The people running YouTube channels dedicated to igniting and admiring large fireworks use basic butane blow torches with a trigger ignition. It’s quick, ensures the fuse will be lit, and gives people more time to run away before the device goes off.
Using one torch per group can help ensure that only one person—the one holding the blow torch—will be lighting off fireworks at a time, another safety recommendation. And because half of all firework injuries are believed to be to the hand or face, gloves and face protections are a good idea as well.
Other advice the West Oakland resident has is to treat a certain designated part of a street as a stage and keep a running hose accessible to douse spent fireworks. And, of course, if you’re going to be lighting off M80s, do so on the ground and away from people.
While that person still gets triggered by random fireworks near their home, they’re hoping to soon be able to stay in Oakland on the Fourth of July and get back into the action.
“I hope I can get comfortable enough to be around fireworks again,” they said. “I enjoyed being a participant.”