Discussions about the “Berkeley boom” seem to be back in full swing this summer, with loud pops, cracks and fireworks prompting hundreds of posts on social media, passionate threads on neighborhood forums and, perhaps inevitably, conspiracy theories.
During an ongoing pandemic and stay-at-home orders this year, the discussions have also become something of a national pastime. News reports describe louder, more powerful explosions, there has been a 4,000% increase in the number of fireworks complaints in New York, and significant local spikes have been reported in Richmond, Oakland and San Francisco. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office received 380 fireworks-related calls in June, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, while it usually doesn’t receive an influx until the week of July 4th.
Since early June, many Berkeleyside readers have shared stories of loud bangs, sounding like gunshots and large explosions, from nearly every corner of the city. They usually start up in the late afternoon or evening and continue into the night. Some tipsters describe hearing M80s – loud, powerful firecrackers – others report smaller, sharper noises that make it difficult for them to differentiate between fireworks and firearms. “Now, I’m used to a few pops here and there, but these sound professional, bigger, boomier,” one anonymous tipster said.
There are no Berkeley data to show how many people are reporting the explosions. Berkeley police don’t track fireworks complaints, according to BPD spokesman Byron White, partly because the department is so small. Fireworks calls are also logistically difficult to organize because they are reported in myriad ways, as well as divided between police and the city’s 311 line.
“Things come in as a ‘loud report’ — that would mean gunfire — but when an officer goes to investigate it, they realize, ‘Oh, it’s fireworks.’” he said. White said the calls generally seem to be coming in at about the same rate as previous years around the Fourth of July.
Though the reports can be confusing, it’s important that residents call in fireworks noises to 911 or the police non-emergency line, especially when they sound like gunfire, he said. If officers are patrolling the area, they can then respond quickly to the location and determine the cause of the noise.
“It’s so daunting for us because in the midst of these fireworks calls, we’ve just had two homicides,” White said, referring to the June 15 shooting of a 19-year-old UC Berkeley student and another fatal shooting of a man on March 22. “You don’t want to write off a fireworks call, and it’s a true shooting.”
All fireworks are banned in Berkeley and most neighboring cities — including those marketed as “safe and sane.” Pandemic ordinances have additionally shut down popular fireworks shows for the Fourth of July throughout the Bay Area, including the Berkeley Marina’s annual event.
But dozens of canceled fireworks shows are contributing to larger private markets for the explosives in some towns, including nearby Dublin. Berkeley is largely surrounded by cities and jurisdictions that already have a year-round ban on fireworks — including the East Bay Regional Park District — but Pleasanton, Livermore, San Ramon and Danville are among those who allow the sale of “safe and sane” products.
In the middle of a hot and dry season, fireworks also pose a fire risk, especially when set off near vegetation and grassy areas. Berkeley fire spokesman Keith May said the department hasn’t yet responded to any blazes sparked by fireworks in Berkeley this year, but fire investigators in Oakland said a three-alarm fire in East Oakland on Sunday was caused by illegal fireworks. In the last few weeks, Oakland firefighters have set up drop-off sites for fireworks to try to get some of them out of circulation.
May emphasized that residents shouldn’t leave fireworks or explosives at the fire station because they might pose a risk to emergency responders, but he said residents can call the police non-emergency line or a fire station to request a fireworks pick-up that can be arranged anonymously. He also said residents should try to report fireworks-related noise as soon as they hear them, instead of days or weeks later when it becomes more difficult for officers to investigate its source.
While the explosives continue popping off, some Berkeley residents have also been perplexed by the prevalence of noise but an absence of visuals. In some cities, like New York, this has led to conspiracy theories about government-led initiatives to frustrate and confuse residents, disrupt their sleep and distract from ongoing protests for racial justice. Others have suggested fireworks are being used in a plot to clog ShotSpotter systems that detect gunfire, and to carry out nefarious acts. Berkeley police don’t use the tracking system, although UC Berkeley police do.
May suggested one more plausible explanation. The city’s geography — a sort of “boxed canyon” — provides an acoustic boost to fireworks and small explosives, he said.
“If you stand at the Marina and look up at the hills, it’s kind of an amphitheater,” he said. “If you’re standing at the corner of Claremont and Domingo, and set off a noise, the noise will carry up that canyon all the way to Grizzly Peak, so it’s hard to tell where it came from.”
This could contribute to the apparent randomness of reports across the city, with some residents saying the fireworks noises originate from the direction of Richmond and El Cerrito, and others hearing them coming from the south Oakland hills.
The passing of July 4th this weekend may provide some respite to residents — and their pets who are reported to have been cowering in corners and scampering around with anxious yelps.
On the other hand, with many people continuing to stay home, fireworks may be one alternative to traditional summertime fun like carnivals and concerts.
The city suggests virtual, professionally organized fireworks shows, backyard camping and DIY home projects as an alternative. More fireworks resources are available on the city’s website.