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CANDLES, COMETS, CARNATIONS : A Field Guide to Fireworks for This Fourth of July

July 04, 1991|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Everything has a name, right?

But when it comes to describing the average fireworks show, most of us are reduced to an occasional stupefied ooh or aah. Attempts to describe a specific effect usually come out something like this: "That big round blue one with the gold swirly things that made one huge boom and a bunch of little pops."

A little education--in the form of our fireworks field guide--can remedy such inarticulateness. A few well-placed words, such as peony or hummingbird or dazzling red ruby, combined with a knowing nod of the head, will amaze your friends and make you the hit of your Independence Day party. Really.

First, a bit of fireworks lore, courtesy of the New York-based Grucci family (the self-proclaimed "first family of fireworks"). Gunpowder, as the story goes, was invented in China, although some contend India is the real birthplace. The first firecrackers appeared about 2,000 years ago, and by the time the United States declared its independence from Great Britain 215 years ago, fireworks were a popular way to celebrate important events.

These days, large-scale fireworks shows are high-tech, tightly choreographed affairs, with a series of mortars fired by pre-programmed electrical impulses. Black gunpowder remains the main ingredient in fireworks, both to propel the shell and as the bursting charge within the shell.

The seven basic colors are achieved with the addition of other chemicals. Blue, the most difficult color to master, is produced by copper salts in the presence of a volatile chlorine donor. White is produced by magnesium or aluminum; yellow, by sodium salts; red, by strontium nitrate or carbonate; green, by barium nitrate or chlorate; gold, by steel and charcoals; orange, by mixing charcoal and other forms of carbon.

Shells range from one to 12 inches in diameter. The propellant charge on one end of the shell ejects it from the mortar; on the other end of the shell is a timed fuse that burns until the firework reaches the top of its trajectory. The bursting charge ignites, the canister breaks and small cubes called "stars" (containing a mixture of oxidizers and fuels) are lit. These stars create the brilliant display.

Different families of effects are associated with different parts of the world. The most familiar are the flower effects from the Orient, such as chrysanthemums and peonies. The spherical shells produce one symmetrical burst of full, round color that radiates evenly, sometimes taking up the whole sky. (Most "American" effects use cylindrical shells.)

Dazzling red rubies, shells from which hundreds of twinkling "rubies" and "diamonds" emerge, come from Canada. England is known for hummingbirds, bright streaks that emit a high whistling sound. Elaborate grand finale shells with colorful and noisy multiple breaks (individual explosions) originated in Italy. Today, some effects have up to five breaks.

American pyrotechnicians have become known for special effects with names that are largely self-explanatory: serpents, whistles, ring shells, comets, patriotic color shells. Fountains and Roman candles should be recognizable to anyone familiar with their smaller cousins.

Large-scale fireworks are an increasingly complex art. Personal fireworks, meanwhile, continue to go the way of the dinosaur and the rotary phone. So-called "safe and sane" fireworks have been banned in all but four Orange County cities, with fireworks stands, once an officially sanctioned harbinger of summer, now found in only Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Garden Grove and Santa Ana.

And not even in these cities will you find that most innocent-seeming of fireworks, the sparkler, which came under a statewide ban this year. A state fire marshal's report said that while sparklers are viewed by parents and the public as among the safest of the legal fireworks, they account for 30% of all reported fireworks injuries, with nearly half of those to children under age 7.

While the outlook for personal fireworks continues to fizzle, public fireworks shows are increasingly taking up the slack. Last year, 21 public displays were held in Orange County; this year, the number is up to 31.

Many are small community shows, but there are some bigger events that draw thousands of revelers. Many also combine the pyrotechnics with other attractions, such as music and games.

Anaheim Stadium may draw the biggest local crowd for a combination of two favorite American pastimes, baseball and fireworks. The Angels are in town this Independence Day and will play the Kansas City Royals at 6 p.m., with a big pyrotechnics display to follow the game.

The five-day Orange County Fiesta at Fountain Valley's Mile Square Park claims the county's biggest fireworks show on the Fourth. Fiesta-goers can also take in live '50s music, carnival rides and midway games; there is an admission charge, but most of the park will be open free to folks who just want to see the fireworks.

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