High-profile Bay Area illegal fireworks busts expose multi-million dollar black market

The bust was impressive.

Just over a week before the Fourth of July, authorities on the Peninsula uncovered a Bay-Area-wide illegal fireworks smuggling operation leading all the way back to China.

It was just one of several recent seizures by law enforcement around the region that have netted tens of thousands of pounds of fireworks and more than $1 million in cash. The efforts couldn’t have come soon enough as California’s parched landscape is primed for the next devastating wildfire.

But even with these impressive hauls of illegal fireworks, many authorities believe they’ve just scratched the surface of a multi-million dollar black market.

"Even with that amount of product off the street and with the suspect in custody, we still hear fireworks every night," said Lt. Eamonn Allen, whose team of detectives with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office recently uncovered  15,000 lbs. of illegal fireworks in warehouses in Oakland and San Jose. 

"It would be foolish to think this one seizure is going to significantly curb firework activity in the Bay Area – especially such a large region like this," he added. 

What challenges authorities is a vigorous demand coupled with illegal supply chains from the region’s ports and along the state’s borders. Dangerous fireworks like firecrackers, bottle rockets and Roman candles are legal one state over in Nevada, and it just takes an enterprising person to drive a few hours east.

Cal Fire is aware of the scheme and recently announced that officers seized nearly 80,000 lbs. of fireworks after conducting 932 traffic stops around the state. 

Other departments have also announced large busts over the month of June: A task force in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto announced the seizure of 2,000 lbs. Authorities in Contra Costa County recently seized 300 lbs. of fireworks. The Oakland Police Department uncovered 165 lbs. of fireworks and in Walnut Creek, police found $2,500 worth of fireworks after responding to reports of a large explosion

But consequence for possessing fireworks are relatively rare and cases can be challenging to prosecute, especially when police encounter people setting off fireworks. It’s often unclear who technically is "in possession" of them and cases can be tough to prove in court. 

KTVU requested the number of prosecutions last year from district attorney’s offices around the Bay Area. 

San Mateo County charged 27 cases. Santa Clara county charged 18 cases. Alameda County charged 6 cases. And both Contra Costa County and San Francisco didn’t file any charges for fireworks possession last year.

Even with this year’s prevention efforts, resident’s in the most fire-prone regions are uneasy after fireworks continue to pour into the area. 

"I feel like every weekend, almost every night we hear fireworks going off," said David White, who lives in the Oakland hills and remembers the 1991 firestorm that ravaged entire neighborhoods like his. 

"We’re already starting to prepare our kids of the fireworks, which is kind of  a strange thing," said Morgan Galli, another Oakland hills resident. "It used to be something that you go to and enjoy."

While authorities are working to get fireworks off the streets, firefighters like Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Damon Covington is getting his team ready for the onslaught. 

Oakland officials announced they will close Grizzly Peak, a popular fireworks viewing area, that is covered in dry grass and brush. Crews this week were clearing the brush along the roadways.

"There’s so much at stake here. Lives are literally at stake," Covington said in an interview with KTVU, while walking along the arid landscape. "Once a spark hits, it can go from very small to very large before we can even blink."

He said his station and all others will be staffed up for the holiday on Sunday with trucks stationed along the most concerning areas. In the past they’ve been able to get to small fires caused by fireworks before they turn into unruly infernos. 

"We’ve dodged a couple bullets," Covington said. "But that’s all on a hope and a prayer."

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky