July 4 is around the corner. And now that California has reopened, Bay Area residents can once again experience some of the official firework displays that were canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — including San Francisco's Fourth of July display.
However, there's a chance that your particular corner of the Bay Area is already experiencing the sounds (and sights) of illegal fireworks every night.
The sale and use of state-approved fireworks each 4th of July is permitted in a limited number of Bay Area communities: Cloverdale, Dixon, Dublin, Gilroy, Newark, Pacifica, Rio Vista, Rohnert Park, San Bruno, Sebastopol, Suisun City and Union City. Anywhere else, even on the Fourth of July weekend, fireworks are illegal.
But whether it's official fireworks displays or illegal fireworks being set off in your neighborhood, the sudden noise of such displays can cause challenges for many. Read on for advice on how to handle them.
Risks for People Living with PTSD
Fireworks can trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans or victims of gun violence.
Dr. Brian Mohlenhoff, a psychiatrist in the PTSD clinic at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, told KQED last year that many of his patients struggle when there's an uptick in fireworks.
Mohlenhoff says he encourages his patients to focus on the present, adding, “What I'm hoping is that after [fireworks] happen, they can quickly reorient and remind themselves that they’re in a safe place, and they're not back there. So anything that can help with that is a good thing.”
With the inevitability of fireworks going off across the Bay Area on a nightly basis, Mohlenhoff shared advice with KQED for how people suffering from PTSD can prepare and cope.
Plan Ahead (If You Can)
Preparation may be more difficult if you're hearing fireworks going off ahead of July 4 — instead of being confined to a single holiday. With fireworks happening at unpredictable times, it’s impossible to know when to expect them.
“I think it’s harder than the Fourth of July, because that random explosion is very similar to a lot of people to what it's like on a base,” Mohlenhoff says.
If you can, try to reduce the noise by listening to music, watching a movie or playing video games with headphones on. If you're also triggered by bright flashes, close your curtains or blinds to block the light at night.
Focus on the Present and Ask for Support
The most important mental health tip, Mohlenhoff says, is to ground in the present moment and remind yourself you’re safe.
You can use grounding techniques to focus on your surroundings, such as naming out loud five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
Mohlenhoff says it can also be helpful to orient towards what's around you and tell yourself things like, “I'm here in my home. I'm here with my loved ones. I'm here with my dog. And that boom is just the fireworks.”
Having a supportive friend or family member present (or that you can call) is often the most grounding for patients, Mohlenhoff says. It's important for them to remind the person suffering from PTSD that they're safe in the here and now. Here are more tips on how to help a loved one coping with PTSD.
In 2020, a handful of small fires broke out in the Bay Area because of fireworks being used ahead of July 4, causing concern from officials that the trend might result in larger fires.
Mishandled fireworks have caused real damage around the Fourth of July in California before. In 2014, a reveler set off fireworks in Yolo County near the Monticello Dam, igniting a 6,500-acre blaze that took days to put out, injured five firefighters and drove dozens of people from their homes. According to 2019 data shared by Cal Fire, Americans start 18,000 fires per year due to mishandled fireworks.
While some official July 4 events are returning this year, some are still canceled for 2021 due to COVID-19, which might well tempt more people to set off their own firework displays over Independence Day weekend. Before you do, you might want to consider the impact fireworks have on the Bay Area's air quality.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has warned that every year at this time, the smoke, dust and soot from fireworks add to unhealthy spikes in particulate matter, and urges residents to "consider your health and the health of your family before lighting personal fireworks." The agency also encourages people to avoid firing up the barbecue, lighting a campfire and other fire-related activities that all add to overall air pollution, which weighs on everyone.
Whether you're planning to light up some fireworks or simply watch them from afar, here are a few safety tips, compiled from experts around the state.
Know the Regulations in Your Community
Check this list to find out if fireworks are legal in your city this Fourth of July. Fireworks aren't permitted in California State Parks, either. “If you are coming to visit the parks, leave your fireworks at home," urges State Parks information officer Adeline Yee.
Use Only Approved Fireworks
Although certain fireworks are legal in much of California, the state has a zero-tolerance policy for both the sale and use of illegal fireworks, and violators may face fines of up to $50,000 and jail time.
Illegal fireworks include firecrackers, Roman candles, sky rockets, bottle rockets, aerial shells and other fireworks that move on the ground or in the air in an uncontrollable manner. Want to do a quick check? Look for the “safe and sane” label, a sign of fire marshal approval.
Lt. Jonathan Baxter, a spokesman for the San Francisco Fire Department, also told us in 2019 that sparklers are illegal in San Francisco. “Sparklers burn at 1,800 degrees, which is [hot] enough to burn gold,” he says. “So if it can burn gold, you can imagine what it can do to your hand.”
Be Ready to Douse a Fire
Never point fireworks at yourself or another person, and never attempt to relight or fix a firework that won’t light. Designate a sober, responsible adult to light up the fireworks. Light one firework at a time, far away from dry grass and have a bucket of water or a hose handy in case something goes wrong. Also, this may sound obvious, but alcohol and fireworks do not mix well.
Properly Dispose of Fireworks
At the end of the celebration, all used and misfired fireworks should be submerged in water for 15 minutes and wrapped in a plastic bag to keep them from drying up. Then toss them in the household trash. Any unused fireworks that have not expired should be kept in a cool, dry place away from children.
Fireworks are notorious for spooking animals, and shelters across the nation report an increase in lost pets every year on July 4.
We spoke with a veterinarian from the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for advice on how to keep dogs and other pets happy while fireworks are happening. Here are her top tips:
Keep Pets at Home or Leave Town
“It’s natural for animals to be fearful of loud noises,” Dr. Sophie Liu, San Francisco SPCA resident in behavior medicine, told KQED in an email.
Since fireworks have been so frequent, make sure your pets are secure inside your home and you're able to monitor them. But, if possible, she recommends going out of town with your pets for July 4 — somewhere without fireworks, if possible.
Update Your Pet’s Tag and Microchip Information
Liu says shelters often receive microchipped animals but are unable to contact their owner because the pet's microchip information is outdated. Your veterinarian can help if you don’t know how to update this information or if you don't remember what microchip company you used.
Recognize Fearful Behavior
Pets may perceive loud, unexpected noises as a threat, and running away or hiding is a natural survival instinct.
It’s important to know if your animal is anxious in order to prevent them from accidentally injuring themselves. Animals may be showing signs of fear if they are panting, licking their lips, whining, drooling, shaking, yawning, hiding or not accepting a treat.
Create a Safe Space
“It is not uncommon to see pets trying to tear through metal crates, chew through door frames, or jump out of windows,” Liu warns.
She suggests owners create a safe haven for their pets before and during firework celebrations.
“Choose a comfortable room without windows, or where you can close the curtains. Play soothing music or use a white noise machine,” Liu says. “The goal of these tools is to help your pet relax and stay calm.”
Liu says some pets may want to hide in the bathroom due to its extra insulation, which could make a great safe space if your pet is naturally attracted to it.
Give Them Treats — But Watch What They Eat
Distract your furry friends with what they love most — treats. Even better: try a treat-dispensing toy, like a KONG, to keep them distracted for long periods of time. “A pet that is comfortable enough to be eating is less likely to be panicked or worried," Liu says.
But be aware of what they have access to, she warns.
"We’ve had animals come to our veterinary hospitals with severe injuries due to fireworks, including burns," Liu says. “Pets should never be near fireworks — not only is it scary for animals, but fireworks have the potential to cause serious harm."
Dogs may also try to eat fireworks that aren’t safely stored, which contain chemicals and heavy metals. Also, keep your canines from munching on sparklers, glow sticks, charcoal, kabob skewers and even dangerous common foods.
Consider Over-the-Counter Medication
You can try using calming pheromones to relax your pet, such as sprays for cats, and collars or plug-ins for dogs.
If all else fails, and your pet is exhibiting severe anxious behavior, Liu says to talk with your vet about medication options.