The explosions begin before dark and extend deep into the night.
Dogs howl. Windows rattle.
It sounds like Los Angeles is at war.
There’s a long tradition of trying to get a jump on the Fourth of July in Southern California, but the nightly explosions of illegal fireworks seem to have arrived earlier and more intensely than usual this year.
I’ve been hearing what sound like battlefield skirmishes since Memorial Day, if not longer. But for the last week or so, it feels as if the whole city is in basic training.
“It’s been going on for three hours, nonstop. Explosions like we are in the path of a bombing raid,” said one social media post this past weekend in Silver Lake.
“My dog hasn’t slept in a week,” said another post.
A petition circulating in the neighborhood calls on the police to enforce laws against illegal fireworks and put a stop to the nightly thunder, and it had more than 900 signatures this weekend.
“In the Silverlake/Los Feliz/Echo Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles, illegal fireworks are constantly going off, and our veterans and animals suffer for months on end because of it,” said the petition.
Eastsider LA reported massive increases in complaints about fireworks this year. But it’s not just that part of town that’s affected, nor is it just Los Angeles.
New York City got 80 times the number of illegal fireworks complaints in the first half of June as it received for the same period a year ago.
“I think it’s a lot of people who have been pent-up and need to blow off steam,” one resident told the New York Times. “But it’s just adding a whole other layer of anxiety.”
Theories abound as to why this year is different. It could be coronavirus lockdown restlessness. It could be that cancelled official fireworks shows have motivated do-it-yourselfers and flooded the market with pyrotechnic material.
It could be that in California, where anything but low-grade safe and sane fireworks are illegal, people with jobs on hold have time to drive to other states or Mexico and smuggle back explosives. Or they may be purchasing materials online and constructing their own incendiary devices.
In California, busts have been made up and down the state, with Irwindale police confiscating 2,000 pounds of illegal fireworks last week. But this is definitely a game of whack-a-mole, and the moles are winning.
My son lives in Santa Monica, and he said the blasts have been going off nightly there for about a month.
Karen Blackfield says the explosions have rocked her West Los Angeles neighborhood for even longer, and they happen around the clock, not just in the evening.
“Yesterday it was all day long,” Blackfield told me on Monday.
But she said she’s getting cheated out of the light show. Day and night, she hears the blasts but doesn’t see any sis-boom-bah. It sounds like single bombs being detonated one at a time.
Those could be what’s known as M80s, or some derivation of that device, said Bryan Gouge, senior arson and bomb investigator for the state Fire Marshal’s office.
These little bombs, named for military devices that were used to train soldiers for battle, usually consist of cardboard tubes two or three inches long, filled with explosive powder that’s lit by a fuse.
Whether those noisemakers are smuggled into California or made here, it’s not easy to stop the flow.
“It’s like the war on drugs but without funding,” Gouge said. “We do a lot of interdiction, and Cal Fire had large busts last year. Almost 30,000 pounds were taken in. But there’s just a lot out there.”
LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said he didn’t have the latest stats, but complaints about fireworks are up, and he said he’s been hearing the explosive evidence himself in his Studio City neighborhood.
It’s hard to investigate such complaints, he said, because by the time police can respond, the show is over, and the responsible party isn’t easy to find. Rather than tie up 911 lines, police encourage people to use an online fireworks complaint form. And Rubinstein said senior lead officers will be told to be more responsive to the issue and that special units are gearing up to investigate cases as Independence Day approaches.
But that could be a touchy subject.
When the petition to end fireworks circulated on social media in Silver Lake — an epicenter of white gentrification — one responder suggested that would lead to more encounters “between police and our neighbors.”
Another respondent said, “most of the folks with the fireworks have probably been here longer than you” and suggested that people “not call the cops on folks who are otherwise good people.”
Resident Christina Vovas, who circulated the petition asking for police action, told me she doesn’t assume she knows who’s detonating all the explosives. She just wants some peace and quiet.
The blasts began before Memorial Day and have escalated ever since, she told me, and at times she’s not sure whether she’s hearing fireworks, gunshots or bombs.
“It’s so loud, it really does sound like bombs,” said Vovas. “It’s relentless. Yesterday was Sunday, and they were starting to go off at 5:30 or 6 p.m.”
She said she didn’t know whether the petition would help, but she didn’t know what else to try.
Ear plugs might be the best bet. July 4 is still a ways off.