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Fire inspectors' efforts make sure illegal fireworks fizzle

After a busy holiday, city sends confiscated items to be destroyed


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Fire & Rescue Public Education Officer Michael Silva holds one of the 45,000 illegal fireworks that he collected that is stored in a warehouse. Silva says that the fireworks will be sent to an undisclosed location until November and will then be destroyed.Michael Silva has had a very busy July. The senior fire inspector for Portland Fire & Rescue has taken charge of Operation Lower the Boom, an ironically named effort. The “boom” fire inspectors and their police colleagues have been attempting to lower are the sounds of illegal fireworks in Portland.

This week, the fire bureau finished its fireworks season operation. The final count shows the bureau collected an estimated $45,000 in illegal explosives and handed out 162 citations (up from 135 last July), with a total of $79,250 in fines. Those citations run from $250 to $750, depending on the severity of the violation.

Who would deserve a $750 fine for illegal fireworks? This year the bureau confiscated a box of nine M1000s. “It’s basically an improvised explosive device,” Silva says. “It’s not even illegal fireworks. They’re building a bomb, basically. If you threw it at a car it would blow out all the windows.”

Or, it could blow off hands. Seriously injured hands are fairly routine as a result of illegal fireworks, Silva says. Every summer, especially around the Fourth of July, house fires get started from fireworks. The neighborhood explosions also can have a terrifying effect on vets returned from combat.

Three years ago, the fire

bureau took an innovative step to curb illegal fireworks, according to Silva. Portland police can only arrest someone for setting off illegal fireworks, and that can involve a couple hours of booking and processing — more than most police officers want to spend on most cases. Fire inspectors, on the other hand, have the authority to cite anyone for fire code violations.

For the past three years, the Portland fire chief has been deputizing every Portland police officer so they can issue citations for illegal fireworks. During the Fourth of July holiday, fire inspectors and police officers work as teams, responding to 9-1-1 calls about fireworks that have gotten out of hand.

Frequently, Silva says, once a team has arrived at the scene of reported illegal fireworks, they can keep themselves busy with multiple offenders for hours.

“If you’re in the city of Portland during the Fourth of July,” Silva says, “all you have to do is look up.”

It’s not unusual, Silva says, to be writing a citation and have people a few doors down obliviously setting off more illegal fireworks. That happened this year, he says, as he was citing a middle-age woman.

“She said, ‘You better write them a citation, you just wrote me one,’ “ Silva recalls. Walking 10 doors away, he found a man who had been setting off rockets and who was standing near a Toyota 4-Runner packed with fireworks. Silva says that when he asked the man for his driver’s license, the man responded by locking his car doors and disappearing into a crowd of about 30 people.

Eventually, after it became clear that a tow truck was on the way to confiscate not just the locked fireworks but the Toyota as well, the man returned and Silva took away about $5,000 worth of explosives.

Silva says he thinks the fire bureau’s public education campaign is starting to take effect. He says local sellers of legal fireworks that shoot no more than a foot off the ground or six feet horizontally have told him business has increased, which might mean fewer people will driver to Washington to purchase illegal explosives.

This week, the fire bureau will hand its collection of illegal fireworks to the state fire marshal, who will oversee its destruction. Portland’s Metropolitan Explosives Disposal Unit will take them to a remote and secret location and detonate the fireworks in a special explosives chamber. But that won’t happen until November.

Why wait so long?

“It’s wet enough that it’s safe enough,” Silva says.