The Board of Supervisors Tuesday formally approved increasing penalties for residents who ignite fireworks illegally in unincorporated communities within Riverside County, as well as designating places where legal pyrotechnics can be purchased and lit.

The board voted 5-0 without comment to amend Ordinance No. 858, establishing the revised penalty formula and elevating the authority of the county fire chief to oversee licensed sales and use of pyrotechnics.

“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.

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 Supervisors Karen Spiegel and 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.

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 previous fines were between $500 and $1,000.

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

Attached to the ordinance was an “Action Plan” for delegating authority, assigning personnel and advising the public about the changes in local law.

In the week ahead of July 4, changeable electronic message signs will be established throughout the county, warning passers-by that “You Light It, We’ll Write It,” with additional notifications about tickets bearing steep fines for those caught illegally setting off fireworks.

Along with sheriff’s deputies, Cal Fire investigators and county Department of Code Enforcement personnel will be deployed and ready to respond to illegal lighting activity, according to the plan.

The final provision of the revised ordinance gives the county fire chief 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.

Although the chief will have discretion on issuing permits authorizing sales of legal pyrotechnics, cities within the county that have stand-alone fire agencies will continue to have their own regulatory processes for permitting fireworks shows.

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

As part of the action plan, authorities will be recommending that people report illegal fireworks via 1-800-78-CRIME, also known as the “We Tip Hotline.”

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

Officials said previously that $30,000 will be needed for augmented enforcement during the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, and another $70,000 may be required for advertising and public service announcements in advance advising the public of changes to local law.

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