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.