This article discusses the legality of fireworks in California. For information about other state and federal laws on fireworks, see our topic page on explosives and fireworks.
California's "State Fireworks Law" lists items that qualify as fireworks, specifies who can possess or sell them, and limits when and where people can "discharge" them (set them off). Some violations of the law are crimes that can result in misdemeanor or felony convictions.
Even though state law allows the sale and use of some types of fireworks, California cities and counties can have their own ordinances with additional restrictions. These local laws might ban or regulate some sale or use of fireworks that state law allows. Be sure to check your local ordinances or city or county website for more information.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12500 and following (2022).)
Under California law, "fireworks" include any device that:
Skyrockets, roman candles, rockets, sparklers, party poppers, paper caps, fountains, and smoke bombs are listed in the law as examples of fireworks.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12511 (2022).)
California has two categories of fireworks: "safe and sane" fireworks, which are legal, and "dangerous" fireworks, which are illegal (without a special permit or license).
Private citizens who aren't licensed by the state to discharge explosives can't legally possess or set off fireworks that state law considers "dangerous." Nor can retailers legally sell dangerous fireworks. Under the law, dangerous fireworks include:
(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12505, 12677 (2022).)
So, which fireworks can a patriotic Californian legally purchase to celebrate Independence Day? Only those labeled "safe and sane."
California law defines "safe and sane fireworks" as any that aren't listed as "dangerous fireworks" and that have the "safe and sane" label. You can find a list of safe-and-sane fireworks on the state fire marshal's webpage.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12529 (2022).)
Some sparklers are legal in the Golden State, depending on their size. As noted above, sparklers more than 10 inches long, or more than a quarter inch in diameter, are considered dangerous fireworks and are illegal.
But any sparklers with smaller dimensions would probably be considered safe-and-sane fireworks, which are legal. The best way to be sure that sparklers and other fireworks are legal is to choose ones with the "safe and sane" label.
Here are some more restrictions on fireworks in California.
While safe-and-sane fireworks may be legally sold in California, that's true only for a very brief and specific window of time each year. Any retailer selling safe-and-sane fireworks must be licensed by the state and can sell the fireworks only from noon on June 28 through noon on July 6 each year. The retailer's license expires automatically at noon on July 6, and it must be renewed each year by June 15.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12599 (2022).)
Farmers can possess and use "agricultural fireworks" to scare off birds and animals in order to prevent crop damage. These fireworks can include small explosives that make noise, or flash pots that make bright light—the idea being to drive away crop-eating critters. Any farmer who wants to use these fireworks needs a permit from the state.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12503, 12678 (2022).)
It's illegal to discharge any kind of fireworks within 100 feet of a location where gasoline or any other flammable liquid is stored.
Separately, California bans the use of dangerous fireworks wherever there's a likelihood that the fireworks will injure people. And it's illegal to discharge dangerous fireworks with the intent to create chaos, fear, or panic in other people. (Remember, it's normally illegal to even have dangerous fireworks in the first place.)
People or groups with a permit to use dangerous fireworks (see the section on public displays and special effects below) are exempt from the rules above regarding likely injury and chaos, fear, or panic.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12679, 12680 (2022).)
Even though safe-and-sane fireworks are generally legal, it's unlawful in California to provide them to someone under 18. And as noted above, it's illegal for anyone without a fireworks license or permit to have dangerous fireworks.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code § 12689 (2022).)
Of course, cities and private groups put on public fireworks shows on the Fourth of July and other occasions. These events are regulated by state law and require permits. Dangerous fireworks are allowed at these events, so long as the fireworks are discharged by licensed operators.
Also, film directors and other entertainment professionals who have a permit can use "pyrotechnic devices" to create special effects for theatrical, movie, television, or other productions, including ones before a live audience.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12575 to 12577 (2022).)
Violating the California State Fireworks Law is generally a misdemeanor, with some exceptions.
Although a year in jail is unlikely for just possessing or setting off some illegal fireworks, a person convicted of this misdemeanor offense can face up to one year behind bars, a fine of $500 to $1,000, or both. A second violation increases the fine to a minimum of $1,000. Sometimes, the person can get probation.
Possessing large amounts of fireworks increases the penalty. For example, having 25 to 100 pounds of dangerous fireworks is still a misdemeanor, but it carries a fine of $1,000 to $5,000.
Possession of 100 or more pounds of dangerous fireworks is a "wobbler" offense, meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. A felony conviction can include up to three years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. Someone possessing more than 5,000 pounds could get a fine of up to $50,000.
Supplying dangerous fireworks to minors is a misdemeanor subject to up to a year in jail or a fine of $500 to $1000 (or both). A second violation increases the fine to $5,000, and the person can't get probation.
(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 12700, 12702 (2022).)
The federal government makes it illegal to transport fireworks across state lines to a state that doesn't allow fireworks. (This law doesn't apply to legal commercial transport.) A violation carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a fine. (18 U.S.C. § 836 (2022).)
If you enter California with fireworks from another state that are illegal in California, you could be prosecuted under federal law for transporting fireworks, or under California law for illegally possessing them, or both.
Fireworks are tempting to many. But there's a lot that can go wrong. For example, a host of a party where someone sets off fireworks can be financially responsible for someone else's fireworks injuries. In relatively rare circumstances, the use of fireworks can also lead to more serious criminal charges, such as arson and "unlawfully causing a fire," which are both felonies. For example, intentionally throwing a cherry bomb into a dry grassy field can lead to arson charges if it causes a fire.
(Cal. Penal Code § 451, 452 (2022); In re V.V., 51 Cal.4th 1020 (2011).)
While the legal consequences of violating fireworks laws are significant, the risk of physical injury is also great and could have a longer and more tragic effect.
If you've been charged with illegal use or possession of fireworks, talk with a local, experienced criminal defense attorney about your case as soon as possible.