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9/11 Fervor, Fire Danger Make Fourth Even Riskier

July 01, 2002|CHRISTINE HANLEY and CHRISTINA ESPARZA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, many Americans are expected to celebrate the Fourth of July with extra gusto this year by buying fireworks and shooting them off.

But the West is burning, and the bone-dry landscape of California is as ripe as it ever has been for fires.

So here in a state that writer Wallace Stegner described as "land of little water--and big consequences," thoughts of a bottle-rocket's red glare and fireworks bursting in air have communities from Sacramento to San Diego on increased alert.

Authorities are promising more patrols and less tolerance for dangerous behavior. They are pleading with the public to attend organized shows. Officials said they are walking a fine line, trying to prevent risky behavior that could spark fires without extinguishing the public's renewed sense of patriotism.

The biggest danger lies in Southern California, where no end is in sight to a dry spell, and fire season has arrived weeks ahead of schedule, already consuming more than 75,000 acres and destroying dozens of homes.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather has gone so far as to ask the public not to buy or use even "safe and sane" legal fireworks, a move that has ignited criticism among charities that benefit from the sales.

Prather and his peers say the stakes are too high and they are taking no chances.

"Our current drought situation is so dangerous that any nonprofessional discharge of fireworks runs the risk of causing a tragedy of major proportions," the chief said.

With forest fires in Arizona and Colorado in mind, Prather added: "Anyone who thinks those kinds of fires can't occur here is wrong. This area is very vulnerable to a widespread fire that could destroy property and homes and even cost lives."

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State's Laws Are Tough

Although it is not among the eight states that outlaw all fireworks, California ranks as one of nation's tougher regulators. The state is among 19 that allow only "safe and sane" devices, including party-poppers and cone fountains. Even these are prohibited in more than half of California's 476 cities. Statewide, more than 20 types of fireworks are banned, including firecrackers, bottle rockets, M-80s and large sparklers.

"Basically, anything is illegal if it flies through the air, scurries on the ground or explodes--in other words, if it's out of control," said Karen Terrill, spokeswoman for the state Fire Marshal. "These things are not toys. They burn people's houses down, they set the wild lands on fire, and they cause a lot of injury."

Last year, fireworks caused 286 fires, $451,000 in damages and 213 injuries in California, according to the Fire Marshal's office. Terrill said the numbers have dropped gradually since 1996, when nearly 1,000 fires caused $9.2 million in damages.

This year could reverse the trend, and not just because of dry conditions. The National Council on Fireworks Safety reports that sales and use of fireworks could reach record levels as Americans unite after the terrorist attacks.

"We know this year, based on what we've heard from dealers in the industry, that sales are brisk," said council spokeswoman Ann Crampton. "If you're choosing to celebrate that way, you need to take extra care."

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Sales Ban Is Rebuffed

Sales booths opened Friday in cities across Southern California where "safe and sane" fireworks are allowed, providing cash for the charities and service groups that operate them. Efforts by Prather and other authorities to discourage or ban these sales outright have been rebuffed by opponents, who argued that the ban would be ineffective and hurt groups with noble causes.

Authorities agree they cannot stop people who want to shoot off their own fireworks from getting them from counties or states where they are legal, or smuggling them from Mexico. And this year, they also know that by the time they catch someone in the act, it may be too late.

Law enforcement is beefing up most in cities where backyards bump up against or blend in with the back country. It's here where one wind-borne ember could ignite a deadly blaze.

In many of these communities, officials are stepping up patrols, educating the public through fliers, direct mail and road signs, and asking citizens to help by looking out more than usual for mischievous behavior and fires.

In Los Angeles County, where about half the cities can sell approved fireworks, extra patrols are designated for fire-prone areas like Malibu, the scene of devastating brush fires in 1993 and 1995.

Capt. Lynn Mohr, who works in Malibu, remembers watching homes burn.

"There's brush everywhere here. If it caught on fire, the hillsides will be ablaze," he said.

In Laguna Beach, where a 1993 canyon fire destroyed 450 homes and caused more than $500 million in damage, 13 additional firefighters and two additional engine companies will be on hand. More signs than usual have been posted around the city and at beaches to remind residents and visitors that fireworks are banned.

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Firefighters Get Ready

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