Ontario Fireworks Explosion Bares Ontario’s Substandard Districts

An explosion that killed two apparent traffickers in illegal fireworks in the home they shared in south Ontario has drawn attention to what many members of the public perceive as an “out of control” district, a neighborhood where lawlessness prevails and city officials are at a complete loss as to how to bring the denizens of the area into rudimentary compliance with civilized standards and the law.
At roughly 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 16, a sizable cache of fireworks that were stored in a home in the 400 block of West Francis Street near the intersection with Fern Avenue less than a mile east of Ontario High School exploded, touching off several nearby fires, resulting in at least $3.4 million worth of property damage.
The initial blast created a towering fireball, dislodging debris of all sorts, including portions of the house, fence planks, tires and even a bicycle, which reached heights of 35 feet or more before they crashed to the ground, witnesses said.
Tentatively identified as those killed in the blast were cousins Alex Paez, 38, and Cesar Paez, 20, who have been linked to the home on the property, which was destroyed in the explosion.
Three other people suffered minor injuries, the Ontario Fire Department said. A dog killed in the blast was found on the property. Two horses that were on the property or next to it were safely recovered.
The explosion was localized to a building behind a house between Francis Street and Maple Street, investigators said. The residential property involved at one time had been used for agricultural purposes, and had some structures other than a residence on it, perhaps including chicken coops or a shelter for livestock.
An initial report was that the fireworks involved were of an industrial grade. Subsequently, however, authorities confirmed that they were illegal fireworks believed to be of Chinese origin, of a type considered to be illegal in virtually all contexts within the United States, but not of the sort used in large-scale public pyrotechnic displays.
The blast was audible at the Upland Post Office, located roughly four-and-one-half miles north northeast of the blast, where it resounded very similarly to thunder.
As a precaution, authorities initially ordered the evacuation of 62 properties surrounding the area where the explosion occurred. As of late today, there were yet mandatory evacuation orders for 13 homes immediately surrounding where the explosion occurred, including those on the north side of Francis Street, the south side of Maple Street and the west side of Fern Avenue. As of late this afternoon, officials had rescinded the mandatory evacuation orders for the residents of 49 properties proximate to the site of the explosion, including those on the north and south sides of Francis Street between Fern Avenue and San Antonio Avenue, homes on the east and west sides of Fern Avenue between Francis Street and Maple Street and homes on the north and south sides of Maple Street between Fern Avenue and San Antonio Avenue, but were still requesting that the residents living in those homes voluntarily evacuate.
A report was that in the aftermath of the explosion, fireworks were still exploding sporadically and unexploded fireworks had been thrown by the blast to various spots around the neighborhood. Shortly after 5 p.m. on March 16, some of the small fires that spread or were lit by the first explosion were yet to be doused, and one of those sparked a secondary explosion of a bundle of fireworks that had been thrown clear of the house when the initial explosion occurred.
Windows, walls and doors of nearby homes, and in at least one case a roof, were damaged or destroyed by the blast.
Bomb squad members engaged in controlled detonations of fireworks found around the site.
As of this morning, firefighters, police officers and bomb squad members had filled 187 medium-size bins with fireworks they had collected from around the neighborhood. Those materials were subjected to safe detonation under controlled conditions.
Ontario as a municipality is the most financially well-fixed of San Bernardino County’s 22 cities and two incorporated towns, with nearly $600 million running through all of its governmental funds annually, more than twice that of its closest competitor in the county. Nevertheless, there are sections of the 185,000 population, 50.01-square mile city that are virtually lawless, and overrun with crime and poverty. In one neighborhood which blends industrial uses and residences roughly a mile-and-a-half from where the explosion took place, nearly all of the homes there are substandard. Mounds of trash and debris illegally dumped in open areas and at the sides of that district’s streets are left unattended. Two and three bedroom homes built anywhere from 80 years to a century or more ago originally intended to house a single family in many cases are severely overoccupied. A significant number of the cars parked along those streets have no license plates. Perhaps as many as a third of the cars with license plates are not outfitted with current tags. Police patrols in that area, part of the city’s transportation corridor, are nonexistent or so rare as if to be nonexistent. In the last two years there have been two massive industrial fires in the vicinity of Sultana and State Street.
-Mark Gutglueck

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