It's a dry heat: July 4th in the world's 'Biggest Little City'
Editor’s Note: Frequent readers of this space know that for the most part, I have my friend Tim Dees focus solely on writing about a wide variety of police products. For the upcoming Independence Day holiday I asked Tim to step outside his typical coverage area and share with us some memories of his time as a patrol officer in Reno, Nevada.
The Fourth of July in Reno, Nevada was usually memorable for what the citizenry forgot. They were as patriotic as people in any other town, and certainly enjoyed celebrating the birth of our proud nation. What they forgot was that they were living in the second- (now fourth-) largest city in the driest state in the Union.
In the parts of the state that consisted of barren desert, fireworks were not much of a problem — there just wasn’t that much to burn. Reno had sagebrush, the occasional tree, and lots of homes and other buildings that were decidedly not fireproof. For this reason, there was a ban on the sale or use of fireworks inside the city or county, one which was blatantly ignored.
The ‘Biggest Little City in the World’ is also home to what may be the smallest Indian reservation in the country. The fireworks ban didn’t apply to Indian country, and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is a two block by one block enclave of Paiute land in the shadow of what used to be the MGM Grand.
It is home to a community of Native Americans, the requisite smoke shop for tax-free cigarettes, and in the weeks preceding Independence Day, a fireworks stand. Business was brisk, and there wasn’t a thing the city police or fire department could do about it.
My Little Arsonist
Third Watch (evening shift) briefing on the Fourth was of predictable content. The appropriate fireworks ordinance would be reviewed, everyone was to be on special watch for fire hazards, and we could count on having a patrol car or two strafed by bottle rockets sometime before we went home.
I was making my rounds in an upper-middle-class housing development when I saw a Roman candle arc up above the rooftops, fortunately going out before it hit any of them. There had already been a few residential blazes brought on by recreational fireworks, and someone was asking to have another.
I rounded the corner to find what appeared to be an entire extended family on the front lawn of a well-kept ranch home, equipped with the My Little Arsonist Starter Set, or maybe several of them.
Everyone seemed to have their own pyrotechnic novelty, from the little kids with sparklers to the paterfamilias with the aerial shells I saw a moment before. There was a brief pause when they saw the black-and-white patrol car and everyone froze in terror. Then, like cockroaches surprised by the light switch, they scattered and ran into the house, smoking debris still on the front lawn.
I got out my misdemeanor citation book and walked up to the front door. Dad, wisely deciding it was better to transact this business out of sight of the family, came outside before I got there. He protested only for a moment. “What’s the Fourth of July without fireworks?”
“In your case, considerably less expensive.”
I happened to be in court on an unrelated matter when he appeared on the citation I wrote him — a $700 fine, and this was in the mid-80s. Ouch.
Trust Me, I’m a Professional
The pros didn’t always do a lot better with fireworks displays. The city made an effort to satisfy the apparent craving for bright flashes and explosions by putting on “Skyfire,” a full-blown fireworks show above the university football stadium.
It was a day-long event, with bands and games, culminating in the big show just after dusk. The first year they did it, there was a miscalculation on the trajectory of some of the shells the pyro company used. The local fire guys got to roll on a merry hillside blaze north of campus, where, fortunately, there were few homes.
Forever after, cops referred to “Skyfire,” as “Grassfire.”
Not everyone wanted to see the show from the stadium. The streets and roads surrounding the area were always lined with cars, most filled with entire families who wanted to see the fireworks and then go home. The “go home” part was mostly wishful thinking, because traffic on those streets was at least as bad as it was in the stadium parking lot.
It was also a little more dangerous, as one of the incentives of watching from your car was the availability of adult beverages that might have been brought along. These were banned in the stadium. They weren’t supposed to be in the cars, either, but what’s the Fourth of July without a few beers?
My interactions with folks in these areas tended to be fairly repetitive.
“Sir, you can’t stop your car here.“
“My kids want to see the fireworks.”
“They’ll have to see them from someplace other than the middle of the street.”
“There’s no place to park, and I’ll be gone in a minute.”
“If you don’t move it right now, you’ll be staying with me, and your car will be leaving when the tow truck arrives.”
This conversation was repeated maybe a dozen times.
I like fireworks as much as anyone, but since those days I only see them from a distance. I don’t like crowds, and my house is just fine without a charred finish.