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July 4th Fireworks: From PTSD to Wildfire, How to Stay Safe This Summer

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Fireworks aren't fun for everyone. If you're one of those who find fireworks challenging, we have advice. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

July 4th is once again around the corner.

It may feel harder for many to celebrate this year, on the heels of devastating mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, countless other instances of lethal gun violence around the country, and the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — all amid the ongoing COVID pandemic that is still claiming many lives around the country every day.

Even if you're one of those feeling this way about the upcoming holiday, Fourth of July events will still be taking place near you as the weekend approaches. These celebrations often mean fireworks: lots of them. And that's not good news for everyone.

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.

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Which fireworks are legal — and which aren't?

The state of California regulates the sale and use of fireworks to cut down on threats to safety.

"A legal firework has gone under testing by the state to ensure that the characteristics of it are inherently safer than those that don't get our safety seal," says Daniel Berlant, deputy director of community wildfire preparedness and mitigation at Cal Fire. "Really, any firework that explodes, goes up in the air or moves around the ground uncontrollably are considered illegal fireworks."

It's not just about the type of firework, but where they're being used. In California, the sale and use of state-approved fireworks each 4th of July — known as "Safe and Sane" fireworks — is permitted in a limited number of communities: only about 300 statewide.

In the Bay Area, those places are: Cloverdale, Dixon, Dublin, Gilroy, Newark, Pacifica, Rio Vista, Rohnert Park, San Bruno, Sebastopol, Suisun City and Union City. See the full list of places where July 4th fireworks are permitted.

Anywhere else, even on the Fourth of July weekend and even if they're on the Safe and Sane list, fireworks are illegal. 

You also have only a "very small window" to purchase Safe and Sane fireworks around the Fourth of July holiday, says Berlant: from 12 p.m. on June 28 through 12 p.m. on July 6 each year. (That's unless a community has a local ordinance that's even more restrictive.)

It's worth noting that last year, over 150 fire scientists joined many fire officials across the West to urge that residents abandon their plans to launch personal fireworks on July 4, on account of the wildfire risk. Jump straight to more expert tips for safe firework use that reduces wildfire risk.

Risks for people living with PTSD

Fireworks can be triggering for people living with PTSD. (Vojtech Okenka/Pexels)

Fireworks can trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 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 in 2020 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 toward 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.

Get more tips on how to help a loved one coping with PTSD.

Download a mindfulness app

If you're by yourself or need extra support, you can try a coaching app to guide you through grounding exercises.

Mohlenhoff recommends Mindfulness Coach, a free app created by the National Center for PTSD that offers guided meditations and coping strategies. Here is a list of more recommended apps from the National Center for PTSD.

Talk to a mental health professional

If you're seeking professional help, the National Center for PTSD has information on how to find a therapist, counselor or mental health provider.

Here is a list of free hotlines to speak with a professional:

Here are Bay Area centers specializing in patients with PTSD:

Fireworks and fire risk

Unsanctioned fireworks are seen over Oakland on July 4, 2017.
Unsanctioned fireworks are seen over Oakland on July 4, 2017. (Theodore Roddy/YouTube)

Cal Fire's figures on firework fires are sobering: In 2021, 916 fires caused by fireworks resulted in over $3.2 million of damage to properties around the state. 2020 was even worse, with more than 2,000 fires in California resulting in over $8 million of property damage.

Mishandled fireworks specifically around the Fourth of July in California have caused real damage in the past. 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.

Cal Fire's Daniel Berlant says now that most of the fireworks shows that were cancelled due to COVID in 2020 and 2021 have returned, the agency hopes "that more people follow our recommendations and attend a community-based public display show shot by professionals versus breaking the law and using illegal fireworks."

It's usually always dry around this time of year, says Berlant, but this year the status of California's drought makes the wildfire risks posed by fireworks even higher. "It's not going to take much for an illegal firework to spark a wildfire," he says.

If you're still considering setting off your own fireworks display over the Fourth of July weekend, 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 whether 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 that indicates fire marshal approval, and consult Cal Fire's full list of approved "Safe and Sane" fireworks.

Lt. Jonathan Baxter, a spokesperson 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 said. “So if it can burn gold, you can imagine what it can do to your hand.”

Plan your location wisely

As well as being sure whether fireworks are even legal in your city this Fourth of July, consider where you're setting them off.

"We really are urging people to be extra cautious in wildland areas," says Cal Fire's Berlant, who notes that even in urban areas, fireworks can still spark a wildfire.

Berlant recommends you make "sure that Safe and Sane fireworks are used in areas that are cleared from vegetation" and are lit in "parking lots or in driveways that are surrounded by nothing that could catch on fire."

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.

Read the full list of tips on preventing causing a wildfire with your fireworks.

Fireworks and dogs: How to keep your pets calm

Make sure you know how to keep your pup safe during this year's Fourth of July celebrations. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

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 which 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 whether 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 fireworks celebrations.

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“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 also may 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 these common foods that can be dangerous to pets.

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.

These tips were drawn from our 2019 story 6 Tips From a Vet to Keep Your Pets Safe on July Fourth.

Allessandra DiCorato and Jazmine Mejia Muñoz contributed to this story. An earlier version of this story was published June 25, 2020.

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