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FOR THE KIDS : Fireworks Without All the Fire : A Ventura-based company sells toys that pop, sparkle, launch, whistle or glow in the dark--all without the use of a match.

July 01, 1993|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By the time you read this, the noise has probably begun. The thundering booms, the pops, and the whistles.

The July 4 celebration begins days before the actual holiday, just ask any police or fire official. And by now, maybe your kids have asked if they can get in on the fun. What do you say?

First of all, fireworks are illegal throughout Ventura County--except in Fillmore where sales of so-called "safe and sane" fireworks boom every year. But remember, if you buy them there, you have to use them there.

Even the sparklers our parents glibly and gladly handed us years ago were banned throughout the state two years ago.

That was good news to Natalie Joy Siman, who heads FunnerWorks, a Ventura-based company that started selling alternative, fire-free fireworks in 1989.

Her company, believed to be the only one of its kind, sells 11 toys that pop, sparkle, launch, whistle or glow in the dark--all without the use of a match.

"I got involved with this because I was seeing parents still giving their children fireworks, thinking they were safe," Siman said. "I knew it wouldn't be easy. Many parents still like to play with fireworks. They are unaware of the danger."

The company has taken off in the past year. Sales tripled during that time, with FunnerWorks lining up some big clients, such as Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target and Toys-R-Us.

The company started out selling a gizmo called the Kracker Blaster, which is still its hottest item. (FunnerWorks has sold a couple million in the past two years). It works sort of like a firecracker: insert a piece of newspaper over a hole, snap the bottom shut, then grab a handle and slam it down on a hard surface. The air pressure pops a hole in the newspaper and makes a bang. It retails for $3 to $6, depending on the store.

Another noisemaker is the Kracker Mat, which is made of plastic bubbles, much like packaging material. When you stomp on it or ride a bike over it, the bubbles pop. A tamer version of the bottle rocket is the glow-in-the-dark Rocket Streamer, which launches a ball and streamer up to 20 feet.

FunnerWorks' has its own version of the now-banned wire-core sparklers. Their sticks leave a trail of colored light when you wave them. To magnify the effect, youngsters can wear Funglasses, which look like the old 3-D glasses and create a prism of rainbow colors when you look through them.

Siman said the glasses work great during a professional fireworks display, an event she doesn't have a problem with. But she cringes at fireworks in the hands of kids or non-professionals.

"That gives kids a mixed message," said Siman, mother of an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. All their lives they're taught not to play with fire.

Siman, whose father is a fire protection specialist, has a slew of stories about people who have lost limbs or been critically burned by fireworks. The company is set up so a percentage of the profits is funneled to burn organizations in California and elsewhere to help burn victims and further public education.

Siman said she won't have anything to do with service organizations that sell the so-called "safe and sane" fireworks. She calls them "unsafe and insane." She's turned down requests to sell her products in fireworks booths in communities where sales are legal.

The concept of alternative fireworks is supported by county fire officials, according to Sandi Wells, information officer for the Ventura County Fire Department.

"We contend no fireworks are safe and sane," Wells said. By late June three fires in the county had already been started by fireworks. Last year, a vacant house for sale in Simi Valley was destroyed by fireworks that landed on the shake-shingle roof, she said.

In 1992, 249 people in the state were hospitalized for fireworks injuries, according to the state fire marshal. Even though fireworks are banned throughout the county, except in Fillmore, they somehow find their way into the rest of the county. Police and firefighters are constantly called out for fireworks calls on July 4, Wells said.

If you go to Fillmore to get fireworks, Fire Chief Patrick Askren has some advice. Watch out for people selling the goods illegally from the back of a car. Buy only from "safe and sane" booths, which means the stuff is approved by the state fire marshal's office.

Generally, Askren said, fireworks that sit on the ground and do their thing--whistle, smoke, spin or boom--are legal. Those that fly in the air and explode are not. The list of no-nos includes cherry bombs, M-80s or M-100s, Roman candles, bottle rockets, firecrackers, silver salutes, helicopters, and shells and mortar.

He further advises parents that children must be 16 to buy fireworks in Fillmore. And another caution--parents may be held responsible for damages or injuries caused by their children. And one final reminder: Possession or use of illegal fireworks is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail.

* FYI

For more information on FunnerWorks, a Ventura-based company that sells alternative fireworks, call 641-6544.

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