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Holiday's Explosive Issue : Fireworks Sales in Five South Bay Cities Ignites Controversy in Neighboring Communities

July 04, 1985|PATRICIA LOPEZ | Times Staff Writer

For many people, the Fourth of July means firecrackers, hot barbecue, cold beer, picnics and fireworks displays.

But for Robert Gorman and his neighbors, the Fourth of July is "a mess."

"We all stay home, wet down the roofs, keep watch and pray that this isn't the year they burn us down," said Gorman, who lives in the Rolling Ranchos section of Lomita.

Gorman, like some other residents of Rolling Ranchos and the neighboring Palos Verdes Peninsula, fears that Lomita's sale of so-called "safe and sane" fireworks will increase the potential for fireworks-related fires.

That fear has been heightened this week by the rash of deadly and destructive fires in Southern California's brush which has been made tinder-dry by record high temperatures.

'Safe and Sane'

"Safe and sane" fireworks refer to those permitted under state law unless cities or counties ban them. They include sparklers, smoke "snakes," cone-shaped fountains that spout multicolored sparks and "party poppers," which emit paper streamers with a satisfying pop.

Lomita is one of five South Bay cities--Inglewood, Carson, Lawndale and Hawthorne are the others--that annually permit the sale of fireworks during the holiday week. In all those cities, only nonprofit organizations such as the Kiwanis Club, Elks Club, Little League and church groups are allowed to sell the fireworks.

For them it is a major fund-raiser that grosses more than $500,000 throughout the five cities in a matter of days. More than 40% is pure profit.

For their neighbors it is a major headache.

Two years ago, Rolling Hills Estates Mayor Jerry Belsky proposed that his city station a sheriff's car on the border with Lomita, to catch residents-turned-desperadoes as they smuggled the contraband fireworks from a border stand in Lomita. South Bay cities that ban fireworks sales also prohibit their possession or use.

Discourage Buying

"We figured even if the police didn't actually arrest people, just having the squad car there would have a discouraging effect," Belsky said. "Unfortunately, the Sheriff's Department didn't feel it had the authority to do that." Sheriff's deputies patrol both cities.

But there is still concern, he said.

"On top of the injuries these fireworks cause, we have an additional concern in that the entire Peninsula is a very high-risk area in terms of fire," he said. "We get a fire started in one of the canyons, with all that dry brush, and you can see whole neighborhoods wiped out."

Much of that fear stems from just such an incident in July, 1973, when a fireworks-sparked blaze raced through the Peninsula, causing more than $14 million damage in Rancho Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills.

"We don't want the Peninsula to burn down the way it almost did then," he said. "We got lucky that time."

Responsible for Fires, Injuries

No city-by-city breakdown was available, but state statistics for Los Angeles County show that fireworks were responsible for 186 fires and $96,740 in damage in 1984. That figure represents a dramatic drop from 1983, when fireworks sparked 391 fires countywide that did more than $400,000 damage. Similarly, injuries dropped to 158 in 1984 from 250 in 1983. In both years, about half those injuries were caused by legal fireworks.

Joan Jennings, spokeswoman for the state fire marshal's office, said that a study is under way to determine the cause of the drop.

In Lomita, the Rolling Ranchos Residential Assn. recently submitted a petition signed by all 211 of its members asking the City Council to place on the April, 1986, ballot a proposal for a ban on the sale of fireworks. Despite heated opposition from service clubs, the item passed unanimously.

Said Lomita Councilman Robert Hargrave: "We've been getting pressure all right. We get letters every year from Rolling Hills Estates asking us not to sell fireworks. I conducted an informal poll when I was running for election in 1983, and 60% of the residents I talked to said they favored a ban."

The major roadblock to such a ban, he said, is the objections of service organizations.

"Charity groups are the biggest pro-fireworks bloc. They definitely have a vested interest in seeing Lomita continue to sell fireworks.

"Incidentally, every member of the City Council belongs to one of those organizations," he added.

Hargrave, who belongs to the Holy Name Society at St. Margaret Mary Church, said his group nets about $10,000 annually from the sale of fireworks. That money, he said, provides support for the church's elementary school, buys sports equipment, pays for refurbishing classrooms, provides scholarships, and purchases library and school books.

"We'd really be hurting if we lost that money," he said. "A lot of programs would have to be curtailed.

"The worst part is, people will still get fireworks. They'll either get them from some other city, like Carson, or turn to illegal ones. We'll be the losers."

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