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Fireworks Show to Go On Again Despite Fears

May 29, 1986|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

The traditional Fourth of July fireworks spectacular that causes huge headaches for undermanned Santa Monica Police and Fire departments will light the night sky above the beach city for at least one more year.

The Santa Monica City Council on Wednesday rejected a staff recommendation to cancel the fireworks display, despite warnings that the Independence Day event creates a fire hazard and attracts uncontrollable throngs of people.

"I can't ensure the safety of the public or my officers," Police Chief James F. Keane told the council. "It's hell out there. It's anarchy."

Anarchy or not, the council decided that it was too late to cancel the event that is expected to attract up to half a million people to the beach community this year. The controversial display was approved by a 4-3 vote. The council said it will consider an alternative event for 1987.

25-Year Tradition

Mayor Christine E. Reed, Councilman David G. Epstein and Councilman Dennis Zane voted against the display. Reed said she was disappointed that the council rejected the idea of canceling the fireworks, which have been launched from the base of the Santa Monica Pier and from two private beachfront clubs for the past 25 years.

"I would actively discourage people from going to Palisades Park or the beach on the Fourth of July," Reed said. "Chief Keane calls the beach a war zone on the Fourth and he's right. We have lost the purpose of the holiday."

Councilman Alan Katz voted in favor of the fireworks display. Katz said he shared Reed's concerns, but feared that crowds would show up anyway if the council canceled the event just one month and one week before the Fourth.

"It was a close call," Katz said. "What swayed me were the telephone calls I received from residents who support the display and the fact that, with this short notice, we would not have had much effect on the crowd."

The fireworks spectacular has been a part of Santa Monica's Independence Day celebration since 1961. Such displays were once common in Los Angeles County beach cities, according to a report prepared for the council this week. But in recent years fireworks events have been canceled in every beach community except Santa Monica and nearby Marina del Rey.

Officials said commercial fireworks shows are being spurned by many cities because they create enormous traffic and safety problems. In Santa Monica, the numbers of people flocking to the beach for the 9 p.m. show has grown beyond expectations and can no longer be controlled, according to authorities.

Police, Fire Department and Recreation and Parks officials unfolded a litany of horror stories in their appearances before the council early Wednesday morning. They told of gridlock so severe that cars have been found parked and abandoned in the traffic lanes of the tunnel where the Santa Monica Freeway spills onto Pacific Coast Highway, of hordes of gang members brandishing weapons on the beach, and of small, hard-to-reach blazes that have been ignited by fireworks on the bluffs around Palisades Park.

Last year, officials said the fireworks display was responsible for at least seven fires. Police made 16 arrests, eight of them on felony charges. In addition, authorities said the crowds compounded the problem by bringing their own fireworks and igniting them on the beach after the public show had ended.

Fire Trucks Delayed

Fire Chief Thomas Tolman said he is concerned that firemen would be unable to reach a serious fire because of illegal parking and tremendous traffic tie-ups. He said fire trucks and ambulances have been delayed. "It has been getting worse and worse every year since I got here," Tolman said.

Don Arnett, the city's director of recreation and parks, has managed the fireworks program for the past 20 years. Arnett said he enjoyed the fireworks display in the past, but added that it has become far too much of a problem.

"The beach is an absolute war zone (during the Fourth of July)," Arnett said of the $15,000 show. "It is an accident waiting to happen."

Police Chief Keane, in a remark that would prove prophetic, said he did not expect the council to cancel the fireworks show. But he asked the group to seriously consider the threat posed by allowing the event to continue.

"The Police Department in this city has a long history of handling large crowds," Keane told the council. "This is the first time we've cried uncle. We have to start preparing for this event more than two months in advance."

Street Closures Expected

After the remarks of Keane, Tolman and Arnett, the council advised the city staff to seek solutions to some of the problems aired at the meeting. They said it is likely that some streets, especially Ocean Avenue, will be closed to traffic and others reserved as emergency lanes.

But the seven-member council remained almost evenly divided over the advisability of continuing its fireworks tradition.

Councilman Zane called his decision to oppose fireworks one of the toughest of his career. He had vehemently opposed the cancellation last week, likening it to the banning of Mardi gras in New Orleans. But by Wednesday, Zane said he had been persuaded that the event was too troublesome.

"It's like giving up one of your most favored holidays," Zane said. "But I was convinced that the security issues were, on balance, what I needed to be concerned about."

Others, such as Councilman Katz, said it is very likely that this year will mark the farewell flash for Fourth of July fireworks in Santa Monica. "If the crowds are more responsible this year, we may see it continue," Katz said. "But I don't have a lot of confidence that that will happen."

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