Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fireworks Smugglers

I was once instrumental in shutting down a major fireworks smuggling ring.

In the summer of 1988 I was working as a Fire Engine Captain on the Tahoe NF in Truckee.  One day we were on our way to the west side of the Ranger District, out towards Donner Lake.  As the Engine drove along Donner Pass road, right across the road from Tahoe-Truckee High School, I saw two boys (about 10 or 12 years old) huddling next to a high wooden fence.  They were watching something on the ground by the fence.  Suddenly they both jumped up and took off down along the fence away from the road.

This, of course, caught my attention so I looked back at the spot where they’d been.  Just at the moment there was a loud crack and a puff of bluish smoke appeared.  I immediately realized that they’d set off some firecrackers.  Since it was fire season and fireworks can easily cause a forest fire, I told my Engineer to stop the Engine.  I jumped out and took off after the boys.

As I was leaving the Engine I saw them squeeze through a little space in the fence to get inside the neighboring businesses’ premises.  When I got to the place they’d gone through, I realized that it was too small for me so I hopped the fence.

As luck would have it, when I got inside the fence I found that I had cut off the boys’ escape route and easily got them into my custody.  Since this had occurred on private property and not Forest Service land, I radioed the local Fire Department.

While we were waiting for the Fire Marshall to arrive, one of my crew said, “Man, Tom, you went over that fence like you were Batman or something.”

I looked over at the fence I had scaled and it was a six-foot wooden fence.  With my adrenalin going, I had vaulted over that fence without a thought.  Now that the excitement was over, I was sure that I would struggle to repeat that action.

Our Engine Crew - at Martis Peak
Greg, Trish & Me
The Fire Marshall arrived shortly (we were only about 200 yards from the main Truckee Fire Station) and we took the boys in for questioning.

The boys were still in possession of a good number of little firecrackers. When asked where they got them, one of the boys stated that his older brother gave them to him.  He added that, “He's got a whole bunch of them.”

That was the extent of my involvement in the case, but a couple of weeks later, the Fire Marshall came by our Station.

“I wanted to tell you something about those kids you caught with the firecrackers,” he told me.

It turned out that the older brother they’d gotten the firecrackers from had a girlfriend from San Francisco.  Her family was involved in a scheme to smuggle non-California approved fireworks in from China.  The older brother was one of the “distributors.”

“We’ve gotten the California State Attorney in on this.  We have already confiscated several tons of fireworks and arrested almost a dozen people.  This was a multi-million dollar operation, but it looks like they’ve gotten most of the operators."

He also added that they believed that the illegal fireworks were responsible for a rash of fires in the Sierra foothills, some of which had burnt down homes.

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