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California County Cracks Down on Illegal Fireworks With Drones

Kern County Fire Chief Aaron Duncan demonstrated the department's new technology during a press conference attended by representatives of various county agencies and local hospitals, which also provided safety tips.

(TNS) — Residents, beware: A drone will quietly surveil firework use in Oildale, as well as east and northwest Bakersfield, during the Fourth of July weekend.

Kern County Fire Chief Aaron Duncan demonstrated the department's new technology Thursday during a press conference attended by representatives of various county agencies and local hospitals, which also provided safety tips.

Duncan said the KCFD contracted the drone service through a company with former military professionals who will operate the 10-foot-long drone that has a 16-feet wingspan, which is about the size of a small SUV. This group typically helps out firefighters when battling conflagrations throughout the state, he added.

Duncan would not name the business with which Kern County is contracting.

Duncan said his department and the Office of the State Fire Marshal already have seized about 35,000 pounds of illegal fireworks within Kern County this year. The crackdown will be aided by every available KCFD engine, firefighter, dispatcher and plainclothes arson investigator during firefighters' busiest day of the year, he added.

"Illegal fireworks (use) here is ... absolutely out of hand," said County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop, who attended the press conference at the Kern County Office of Emergency Services on Panorama Drive.

KCFD Capt. Andrew Freeborn, a public information officer with the county agency, noted the technology will be used July 3 and 4, and any other time illegal fireworks activity picks up.

Freeborn refused to divulge the names of the entities contracted with the KCFD. He said The Californian was welcome to "file a Freedom of Information Act" request, a mistaken reference to the state's Public Records Act.

Freeborn added the company requested privacy and that the KCFD not publicly release its name. This company didn't want "pushback" from the community, which may not like that they are aiding law enforcement in an investigative capacity, Freeborn said.

"These are great people that serve the community," Freeborn said, while adding the department will "honor" the request "because they are veterans."

He said Thursday evening that he did not know when the contract was approved.

The demonstration Thursday included footage from the drone, which is alerted by a flash of light launching into the air — a hallmark of illegal fireworks — appearing as a white ball exploding. The black-and-white video showed an aerial view of a property where the fireworks ignited and two figures darting inside a home on the property.

The drone immediately honed in on the flash, began calibrating the GPS location of the house and matched those coordinates with a parcel map to determine the property's owner.

"Drones have become the foremost technology," Duncan said.

Residents won't be able to see the technology, which can fly about 2,500 to 3,000 feet in the air while covering many square miles, the chief said. He added that people's privacy is protected because this technology is no different than Google Earth.

A property owner is held responsible if fireworks are set off on their land, even if the owner didn't ignite them, Duncan said. Fireworks set off in the streets are a "gray area," the fire chief acknowledged, but the drone can capture video of someone walking to and from a residence to pinpoint the suspect's identity.

Duncan said he plans to expand this program to outlying areas and in cities that contract with the KCFD. If video is captured of lawbreakers in city limits, the Bakersfield Fire Department will also become privy to the drone's information. Metro Bakersfield is where most illegal fireworks activity is spotted.

Last year, the KCFD said, the agency received 4,000 calls about illegal fireworks activity. Additionally, 77 fires were started on the Fourth of July directly related to fireworks, which resulted in four traumatic injuries. The department also said it seized 5,000 pounds of fireworks in 2021.

"That is out of control," Duncan said. "As your fire chief, I cannot have injuries to the public due to the fireworks."

© 2022 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.