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Sonoma wedding fireworks display sparks outcry

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Most county residents are under the impression that fireworks are illegal in Sonoma County – its an assumption that raised hackles last month when an aerial display snapped, crackled and popped the night of Sept. 23 above Viansa Winery.

But, according to county officials, they’re not as illegal as most people tend to think.

Assistant Fire Chief James Williams is tasked with reviewing and approving fireworks permits for Sonoma County. While the county website states broadly that fireworks are illegal across most of the county, it turns out that only refers to the average Joe and Jane.

Established pyrotechnic companies can receive a permit to set off fireworks any time of year, in any established spot in unincorporated Sonoma County, according to Williams.

“I won’t turn down an application from a licensed pyrotechnics company to put on a show, so long as they meet all safety requirements,” he said.

Fireworks became an explosive topic last month, when a young couple from Chicago celebrated their nuptials with a fireworks show above Viansa Winery on a hot, windy Sunday night. The show, originally scheduled for 9 p.m., went off at 10:55 p.m., on Sept. 23. So close to the anniversary of the 2017 Sonoma Complex fires, the fireworks both scared and angered nearby residents, according to more than a dozen posts on NextDoor and Facebook that evening and the next day.

Reached for comment soon after the wedding, Williams explained if an area is under a Red Flag Warning, a fireworks show can still take place.

“We will only require the cancellation of a fireworks show if it is a Red Flag Day,” he said. “And it was not.” A Red Flag Day is a day of heightened fire danger during a red-flag warning period.

The wedding’s fireworks show was conducted by J&M Displays, one of the biggest pyrotechnic companies on the West Coast.

West Coast VP Steve Souza said that while the bulk of their shows are staged for towns, fairs, sporting events and high schools, around 10 percent of their business is weddings.

Williams attributed the rarity of private event fireworks to the cost, but according to Souza, the start-to-finish cost of hiring J&M for a show, including not just the pyrotechnics themselves, but also travel and insurance and everything else, starts at around $5,000. Not necessarily an outlandish amount in today’s era of big budget weddings.

The small 60-guest event at the winery on Arnold Drive in Carneros was J&M’s first wedding pyrotechnics show in Sonoma County in the three years that Souza has been with the company.

J&M put on 300 shows a year and no one questions that they obtained the proper permit from the Sonoma County fire department for the wedding. Souza said that as required, both the county and local fire department inspected their plans and the site prior to the event and an engine crew was on hand throughout the evening.

“We did our part,” said Souza. “And the show was beautiful.” Williams agrees.

But in the case of the Viansa fireworks, additional permitting was required, and there is behind-the-scenes finger pointing as to who forgot to file for it.

The fireworks company wasn’t responsible for the use permit and assumed it was on file. Viansa’s brand new winery manager, Chris Sebastiani, arrived late to the party, so to speak – he came on board in last August – and assumed that the third-party event planner, Milestone Events, was taking care of it.

The president of Milestone thought that either the wedding planner hired by the bride and groom was getting the necessary permits, or that the winery had them in place.

Putting aside the hot and dry conditions on a Sunday night so close to the anniversary of Sonoma’s fires, had the wedding’s fireworks show gone off at 9:30 p.m. as originally planned, Viansa’s neighbors might have been less upset. Instead, the five and a half minute show, set to amplified rock music, exploded in the skies at 10:50 p.m. that night, and dud explosives were set off around 11:30 p.m.

Every Sonoma County winery and event space has its own unique use permit that specifies how much, if any, noise they can make outdoors.

Viansa’s current use permit allows 150 special events per year until 10 p.m., so long as the event noise does not exceed a specified low level, and amplified sound is not permitted outdoors. Its use permit, and likely most of its peer event spaces, does not specifically prohibit, or even mention, fireworks.

According to Maggie Fleming, communications manager of Permit Sonoma, Viansa needed a special use permit for event noise at that, or any, hour of the evening. She would not generalize that late evening fireworks would never be approved, stressing instead that permits are approved on a case by case basis. Special use permits in unincorporated Sonoma County are typically requested two to four months in advance, cost all-in around $1,000.

Brothers Chris and Jon Sebastiani took over running Viansa for Vintage Wine Estates in late August and the event was on the books for months prior.

“Even though the fire department had no problem with the fireworks, we feel very badly about the timing,” said Jon Sebastiani. They said that no fireworks show will ever again take place at Viansa, or at any other Vintage Wine Estates venue.

“We understand that this was traumatic for the community and their concerns were serious and legitimate,” Sebastiani added.

Viansa has been fined for both excessive noise and not having the appropriate permit for the event “in response to multiple complaints from neighbors,” said Fleming.

One major reason for the confusion over this particular fireworks show was that they don’t happen very often here. Williams said that this is the first time in his three years on the job that he’s seen had an application for an aerial pyrotechnics display, outside of July 4 celebrations.

And going forward, he’ll double-check with the country that the permit he issues mirrors that of the county’s special use permit.

But he said he now doubts he’ll see another request like this one.

And he may be right. First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said the supervisors may consider a potential ban on such pyrotechnics in the future.

“The neighbors who called my office were furious about the noise (sounded like exploding propane tanks), concern about the potential for fires and triggered a PTSD response as it occurred late at night close to the anniversary of the firestorms last year,” Gorin wrote in an email to the Index-Tribune. “So clearly, this is a serious concern to me.”

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.