For as long as I can remember, my mother would start to get excited a few days before Independence Day, maybe around July 1st or 2nd. Sure she was as patriotic as anyone, but her excitement was not about celebrating America’s independence from Great Britain. She wouldn’t plan a BBQ or buy tickets to the biggest pyrotechnic show she could find; no, my mother was the other kind of excited. Two or three days before the 4th of July, Mom would start getting worked up about the annual throng of holiday visitors that show up around sundown each year on the 4th to set off illegal fireworks.
My parents’ home sits at the northern end of Windsor, in West Altadena. Their home is last home on the west side of the street and north of them is an undeveloped lot with a triangular parking area for visitors to the Hahamonga Watershed. Mid to late afternoon, Mom would pick her spot, where she could clearly see the lot and surrounding area. From that perch, she would call the Sheriff at the first sign of fire and continue calling until the last firework had gone off, then she waited till every car was gone before retiring to her bed, exhausted, one eye open, still fussing about the events in the lot next door.
Her family often encouraged her to “take it easy,” after all the folks were just having a little innocent fun. You can imagine, she protested, “Fun?!? They’re going to burn this house down!” I must admit we had a little fun with her, testing her resolve, “if the fireworks weren’t safe, they wouldn’t be for sale…” which only added fuel to her fire.
In February, we lost Mom to breast cancer, after a 19 year battle we were sure she would win—she was much tougher than cancer could ever be. This 4th of July, my older brother, Bryan, found himself sitting at Mom’s perch, watching over the festive crowd that gathered just north of our family home. For the first time, he was not laughing or having a little fun at Mom’s expense; instead, he was watching intently, at the ready—praying it would not be the year that Mom was afraid of.
In the days before, my brother did a little online research about 4th of July fires and their risk factors. To his dismay, our family home and the area around it was a textbook case for such a fire. A bird’s eye Google Maps view revealed acres of thick brush interspersed with 100 year old oaks, sycamores and eucalyptus, extending south, just under more than 100 homes. The highest density is on a steep rough slope just under the homes, which would be difficult for firefighters to navigate. This fuel area is back behind the homes and mostly out of visible range, making early detection impossible in the case of a fire. To his horror, Mom’s instincts were right on the money—Mamma knew best!
As the evening unfolded, the parking lot filled with the usual cast of young, happy pyrotechnic amateurs. They started with the “Safe and Sane” products that sat on the ground, spraying their colorful display 5 or 6 feet in the air and eventually graduated to the highly illegal rocketing sort that can only be smuggled in from across the border or over the sea. The later variety is what worried Mom the most and now worried Bryan too. These explosive projectiles whistled up into the air, veering towards the homes or the dry brush with no particular predictability, some soaring straight up, high into the air, and some choosing more of an arced path, peaking and then beginning to descend before exploding in a blaze of glory.
When Mom first became aware of the danger, she called the Altadena Sheriff’s Station, as she had been instructed to do. After a while, a black-and-white would come by and say something to the crowd before pulling away. She couldn’t hear what was said but assumed the deputy was issuing a warning against their use of illegal fireworks, but as soon as the cruiser was out of sight, the fireworks show would resume. She would call again, and the cycle would repeat itself. As the years went on, I think that the Sheriff’s dispatch eventually saw her as an old crank, or a "crazy old woman" who called every year. In the end, they didn't even bother to send patrol cars by the lot; but, Mom persisted in calling... her real frustration seemed to be that she had to do this every year with no permanent solution.
Mom was not calling the Sheriff because the neighbor kids were popping off a few crackers. Mom was calling because the entire parking lot was filled, with people year after year (people who don’t even live here,) and it was all being done in the middle of summer in a parking lot right next to a hill of yonder dry bush that ran below an entire community of homes. While I know the Sheriffs can't park a squad car in the lot all night, they could just tape off the lot and post "Lot Closed 7/4/xx Due To Fire Danger."
This year, I took my family 2 miles south to the Rose Bowl. The firework display was amazing; in fact it’s the biggest show in Southern California. With the biggest and brightest pyrotechnic display for miles, so close by, I can’t see any reason to risk my family home or the homes of hundreds of other Pasadena and Altadena residents next year, or any other year.