The Board of Supervisors Tuesday tentatively voted to increase penalties for residents who ignite fireworks illegally in unincorporated communities within Riverside County, as well as designating places where legal pyrotechnics can be lit.

“This is where we begin to move forward, putting some teeth in to rectify some of our challenges,” board Chair Karen Spiegel said ahead of the 5-0 vote in favor of amending Ordinance No. 858.

A second and final public hearing to formally adopt the changes is set for May 11.

“The massive display of illegal fireworks (in July 2020) lasted for days and were responsible for multiple fires, and overwhelmed the county’s 911 system, causing delays in critical responses to calls for help, stretching fire resources beyond their limits,” according to an Executive Office statement posted to the board’s agenda.

The Office of County Counsel, in collaboration with the Sheriff’s Department and Cal Fire, drafted amendments to the long-standing regulations codified under Ordinance No. 858 prohibiting illegal pyrotechnics.

The revisions were requested last summer by Spiegel and Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, following the series of illicit fireworks-related incidents that some officials attributed to lockdown fever, with people seeking outlets amid coronavirus-related restrictions, which resulted in most public fireworks shows being canceled countywide.

Jeffries questioned whether the ordinance would make a difference without an “action plan” to go along with it before the upcoming Fourth of July holiday.

“We need somebody to carry out the enforcement activities,” the supervisor said. “What is the role of Code Enforcement? Who is going to carry out the enforcement actions to prevent pretty much the kind of disaster we had during the last of Fourth of July with the fires?”

County CEO Jeff Van Wagenen vowed to bring all public safety heads and appropriate Transportation & Land Management Agency officials together to “work on an implementation plan before the final vote.”

According to Sheriff Chad Bianco, the county’s 911 service received 8,668 emergency and non-emergency calls connected to fireworks activity around July 4, 2020, leading to 80 arrests.

Spiegel said previously that in the Corona area alone, “it was the most number of illegal fireworks going off I’ve ever seen.”

Ordinance No. 858 currently sets fines for illegal possession and use of pyrotechnics between $500 and $1,000. It additionally establishes the possibility of misdemeanor charges, when cases rise to a certain level.

Under the amendments, there will be higher civil penalties, ranging between $1,000 and $5,000. The amount will depend on the number of violations within a 36-month period.

The revisions also create liabilities for property owners who knowingly permit someone to light illegal fireworks, increasing penalties further.

The final provision of the revised ordinance gives the county fire marshal authority to designate specific locations in unincorporated areas where so-called “safe and sane” fireworks can be sold and ignited. In Blythe, Coachella, Desert Hot Springs and Indio, the safe and sane devices — like sparklers, fountains and snappers that don’t shoot into the air — are permitted.

Modifying the ordinance is expected to cost $100,000, which will have to be drawn from contingency accounts, according to the Executive Office. Officials said $30,000 will be needed for augmented enforcement during the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, and another $70,000 will be required for billboard advertising and public service announcements in advance advising the public of changes to local law.

Cities have their own regulations and will not be compelled to follow the county’s requirements, unless they choose to align with them.

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