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Fillmore's Benefit Bang

June 29, 1989|SHANNA GOWENLOCK | Times Staff Writer

If the Fourth of July in your neighborhood sounds like the shelling of Da Nang, you might look to the otherwise quiet town of Fillmore--and its churches, charities and civic organizations--for an explanation.

In addition to picnics and patriotism, the Fourth in Fillmore means fireworks sales. And fireworks sales mean a reliable source of cash for perennially strapped nonprofit groups, which must vie with each other year-round for the limited funds available in a town of 11,400.

For 17 years, Fillmore has bucked the anti-fireworks trend in California, opening its streets to droves of residents from Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties--anyone on the lookout for such non-explosive delights as sparklers, whistlers and spinners. Firecrackers and skyrockets are banned.

Thirty-eight of the 85 cities in Los Angeles County allow fireworks sales; among jurisdictions banning their sale are the city and county of Los Angeles. In Santa Barbara County, only Santa Maria permits them. And Fillmore is the only one of Ventura County's 10 cities to allow them.

Despite the misgivings of some local fire officials, who would prefer to see no sales, many fireworks vendors in Fillmore say their organizations would be in dire straits without them. Thanks to a city ordinance passed in 1972, they are able to turn the town into a star-spangled enclave of red, white and blue--as well as fluorescent orange and chartreuse--fireworks stands the week before each Fourth.

"You can only have so many carwashes," said Dale Crockett, a member of the Fillmore Chamber of Commerce's board of directors. Crockett hopes to help the chamber take in $10,000 to $12,000 this week, with the money going toward the organization's rent and building upkeep, publishing tourist information and paying the salary of its one employee.

Other organizations hope to bolster their coffers for such causes as feeding the hungry and homeless, donating eyeglasses to the poor, outfitting the town's Little League teams, providing college scholarships and maintaining local churches.

In what is mainly a good-natured cooperative effort, they hawk the wares of Pyrodyne American Corp.--Freedom Fireworks and Magic Dragon Fireworks--from 18 plywood huts along California 126.

Terry Metzler, who spends much of her time at the Fillmore United Way Volunteer Services stand, can't afford to lose sleep worrying about the competition. After all, her husband, Michael, the Sunrisers Rotary Club treasurer, is making his fireworks pitch less than a mile down the road. Both will moonlight in the booth run by their church, St. Francis of Assisi. And as Fillmore Chamber of Commerce members, it just wouldn't be neighborly not to pop in for a stint or two there, too.

'Plenty to Go Around'

"Oh, we're not out to outsell each other or get all the customers," said Metzler, whose organization uses much of its fireworks income (it's hoping for $30,000 this year) to help feed the hungry and homeless. "There's plenty to go around."

In fact, during the town's eight-day boom, it's not unheard-of for people who have sold all their stock to hop across the road and ask neighboring vendors for some spare fireworks to tide them over until the next shipment arrives, said Fillmore resident Mike Brown, who helps run the Foursquare Church's stand.

But one aggressive vendor is all business, to the dismay of other groups.

Mike Nichols, pastor of Beth-El Baptist Church, has taken out advertisements in area newspapers offering free fireworks and discount prices, and he has 20 people at a time manning his 64-foot stand, the biggest in town.

"Some people in town are grumbling that I'm trying to undercut their sales, but that's not true," he said. "The more people we can draw in, the more their businesses will do, too."

Nichols has gone a step beyond the usual fireworks-stand security guard: He has equipped the stand with an interior and exterior infra-red alarm system. And few would-be burglars would be inclined to grapple with burly, camouflaged-clothed security guard Pete Dempsey.

'Good Cause'

"We are selling fireworks for a good cause, but we have to be realistic, too. And that means we have to advertise and we have to take steps to really protect our stands from people who want to steal our stuff," he said.

Security is just one problem stemming from the sales.

Pat Askren, chief of Fillmore's volunteer Fire Department, complains that many who buy fireworks don't stay and use them within the city limits, as the law requires. Askren has asked the city to curtail the sale of fireworks, taking a stance he acknowledges as unpopular in a town full of struggling charity organizations.

"I hate to see kids get hurt with fireworks, and I don't really feel a lot of the parents are smart enough to watch their children," said Askren, who has seen children seriously burned because they stepped on still-smoldering fireworks.

"But people in California think it's their God-given right to set off fireworks, and if we don't give them the safe-and-sane stuff, they'll go out and get the big stuff. Then we could have some real problems," he said.

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