Last July 4, Russell Shafer, 20, was setting off fireworks with friends and "wanted something to make a loud bang," he said.
He decided that mixing gunpowder with more explosives from a "piccolo pete" whistling fountain probably would do it. After wrapping the powders in newspaper, Shafer lit it with a long wick.
At first, nothing happened. Then, after a short fizzling noise, Shafer and his friends got their bang.
Shafer said he also sustained second- and third-degree burns when flame and white smoke suddenly enveloped his hand. The burns required several hospital burn treatments which Shafer described as "not too enjoyable." Shafer said this year he has sworn off homemade pyrotechnics.
Injuries like Shafer's, and worse, are one reason Orange County fire and emergency workers gear up for overtime around Independence Day. Fires are another.
Fire conditions in Orange County this year are worse than usual, Orange County Fire Chief Larry Holms said. Wildlands and foothills are especially brown because of a dry winter and spring.
"Fireworks turn a normally dangerous and explosive situation into something that's almost unbearable," said Capt. Steven Dale, a fire-prevention officer with the California Department of Forestry.
"It's madness, really," said Newport Beach Fire Inspector Russell Cheek. "People tell their kids all their lives not to play with matches, and then what does everybody do? On the Fourth of July they all go out and play with matches."
Five Orange County cities have outlawed fireworks entirely. They are Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, La Habra, Tustin and Seal Beach. Fireworks also are illegal in Sunset Beach, an unincorporated area.
So-called safe and sane fireworks are legal in Westminster, Brea, Irvine, La Palma, Los Alamitos, Placentia, Costa Mesa, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Villa Park, Yorba Linda and all unincorporated areas except Sunset Beach, but buyers must be 16 or older.
One must be 18 to buy legal fireworks in Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Stanton, Santa Ana, Fullerton, Cypress, Buena Park and Huntington Beach.
In addition, most cities have specified dates, ranging from June 25 to July 5, during which fireworks may be sold.
"Safe and sane" fireworks are defined as those that do not explode, shoot through the air or dart along the ground. These include spark-spewing fountains, sparklers, snakes and whistling "piccolo petes," Dale said. They bear the fire marshal's seal; all others are illegal throughout California.
Some fire officials insist that no fireworks are truly safe. "Even something as mild-mannered as a sparkler can be dangerous when thrown on a shake-shingle roof," said Joe Kerr, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Department.
Last year, fireworks injured 11 people in Orange County, Kerr said. Illegal fireworks caused $28,200 in damage, and safe and sane fireworks caused $96,850 in damage, with a combined total of 37 structure fires, 83 vegetation fires and seven vehicle fires.
A brush fire that blackened 580 acres south of the Riverside Freeway last year was also attributed to illegal fireworks.
For all that, 1984 was a relatively safe year. In 1981, fireworks were blamed for 32 injuries and $2.5 million in property damage.
"With the kind of damage that occurred in 1981, people started to take notice," Kerr said. "Many fireworks sales went to benefit charitable organizations, but at what cost? People found out there are other ways to raise money, like pancake breakfasts and 10-kilometer runs."
Fireworks companies traditionally point out, however, that illegal fireworks such as cherry bombs, firecrackers and Roman candles cause most of the serious damage.
Dale, a member of a statewide team assigned to confiscate illegal fireworks, said 125 arrests involving possession of bootleg fireworks occurred in the last month alone, most of them in San Bernardino County.
Fire officials urge those who buy safe and sane fireworks to use them on a paved surface far from brush, to supervise children and to keep a connected hose at hand.
But professional fireworks shows, Kerr said, "are just as colorful and much, much safer."
Fireworks shows will be offered on July 4 at Disneyland and at Anaheim Stadium during the baseball game. In Fountain Valley, the city fiesta will include fireworks displays July 3 through July 7.
A fireworks display and concert will be offered July 4 at Santa Ana Stadium, and in Brea there will be a display at the Brea-Olinda High School.
A display and parade are scheduled in Huntington Beach on the Fourth, just west of the Huntington Beach High School stadium. And in Laguna Beach, a community display will be offered at Main Beach Park.
A "traditional" fireworks display will be held on the San Clemente pier July 4.
Other cities are still planning displays.
In Newport, Fire Inspector Cheek said he encourages public shows.
"I love fireworks. People say we're unpatriotic for outlawing them. But the 13 original American colonies outlawed fireworks, too, so I don't buy this unpatriotic stuff," he said.