FILLMORE — Jose Ramos Jr. of Oxnard said he likes the pop and snap of the Fire Krackle. Stephanie Zercher of Newbury Park tends toward the more elegant dance of color provided by a Ground Bloom Flower.
And Jose Aguilar of Oxnard simply goes for a blast of smoke on Independence Day.
On Monday, all three were in the right place.
Each year, in the week leading up to the Fourth of July, more than two dozen booths crammed with "safe and sane" fireworks with names like Howling Madness and Sunburst Fountains crop up like wildflowers along a mile-long stretch of Highway 126 just within Fillmore's city limits.
These booths sell the only fireworks in a county where elsewhere they are illegal. In Fillmore--one of 200 communities in California where fireworks can be sold--the sparks and booms of the holiday are treated like a God-given part of American small-town life.
"It's a long, long tradition in Fillmore," said City Councilman Don Gunderson. "I'm cautious about this stuff, but this is what people want."
However, in most of parched Southern California--where a careless ash can ignite a wildfire--any fireworks are controversial.
The Ventura County Fire Department considered suing Fillmore three years ago to recover $200,000 it spent fighting a 400-acre brush fire started in Ventura by two teenagers playing with fireworks they admitted buying in that city.
Although the Fire Department never filed the suit, it has just reached a financial settlement with the children's parents--their insurance companies are repaying the cost of fighting the fire.
But Fillmore leaders remain committed to fireworks sales.
The booths bring in big money--as much as $250,000 annually among the organizations that sponsor the 25 booths--that helps to fund a large chunk of Fillmore's nonprofit programs.
These proceeds assist in paying for such things as the Rotary Club's youth programs, Little League and Lions Club activities.
"I don't feel we're doing anything bad," said Janine Rees, a parent who staffed a booth for the Fillmore High School band. "It keeps people from going and buying illegal fireworks in Tijuana."
Fillmore is also the only place in Ventura County where it is legal to set off such "safe and sane" fireworks. But that doesn't stop most shoppers from taking their purchases outside the city limits.
Although the Ramoses typically take in a professional fireworks show, this year they decided to shop for their own entertainment, which they plan to set off in their Oxnard neighborhood.
"[The law] doesn't stop anyone," said Jose Ramos Sr. "Every time when we come home [on July 4th], the spent fireworks are all over the street."
On the holiday, Fillmore's population of 12,000 typically bulges to twice its size as thousands of visitors set off a wave of fireworks in the streets, said Fillmore Fire Chief Pat Askren. He said he would rather oversee the use of fireworks in the open than have to enforce a ban that doesn't work.
"We can discourage people from setting off fireworks in the brush," he said. "Most of our problems come from things not sold in the city, anyway"--illegal fireworks such as M-80s and those that shoot into the air.
Ventura County Fire Department officials are still concerned about fireworks-related blazes, an inevitability this time of year.
Thanks to recent cool and wet weather, only a few grass fires have occurred locally this fire season, but a blaze started by target shooters in Los Padres National Forest that scorched more than 600 acres last week shows just how quickly a volatile fire can spread, said Sandi Wells, a Fire Department spokeswoman.
Depending on the weather, the county Fire Department could choose to beef up its staff on Independence Day weekend. It should not be particularly dry or windy late this week, according to the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
But officials ask all fireworks customers to be especially careful.
"If they buy them in Fillmore, they should stay in Fillmore and use them there," said Dave Festerling, the county's deputy fire chief, who called for adults to demonstrate vigilance in handling fireworks. "They can generate a lot of heat even though they're called 'safe and sane' and can be used improperly even in supervised situations."
Askren agreed. Supervision, not a ban on a fireworks, is perhaps the best way to avoid accidents, he said.
"Kids can buy a cigarette lighter, a book of matches and a flare," said Askren. "We just have to teach them better."