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Fires Spark Debate Over Fireworks

Safety: Dry conditions prompt a move by a Ventura County supervisor to ban roadside sales in Fillmore.


With a 21,300-acre wildfire still burning in Los Padres National Forest, Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn called Monday for a meeting with the county fire chief to discuss banning the sale of Fourth of July fireworks. "It's very dry this year; we're way down on our rainfall," Flynn said. "It would be a horrible thing to sell fireworks when we're burning up as it is."

Fillmore is the only city in the county that allows the sale of so-called safe-and-sane fireworks, which do not explode, dart across the ground or lift into the air. Although the sale of such fireworks is permitted by state law, Flynn said it is county land that is most prone to wildfires.

In recent years, at least nine fires throughout the county have been ignited by fireworks, with the largest burning 4,300 acres in the Ojai Valley in 1999. Firefighting costs have totaled more than $5.6 million.

Though most of the fires were started by illegal fireworks, Flynn said that all roadside sales should be banned. Because the law leaves the county little or no authority to regulate fireworks sales, it comes down to politics, he said. Fillmore officials for years have refused to ban sales.

Barring a change in state law, there may be little the county can do to prevent fireworks sales in Fillmore, but Flynn hopes, in light of this year's dangerous fire conditions, to bring political pressure on Fillmore city officials.

"I know it's a political issue, but when it becomes a political [versus] safety issue, we have to go on the safety side," Flynn said. "We should not allow fireworks to be sold in Ventura County. To sell them is just asking for problems."

Brush fires have consumed 45,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles counties this month alone. Other wildfires have scorched 11,000 acres in the region since the beginning of May, with firefighting costs estimated at $16 million.

Southern California blazes are among a wave of wildfires sweeping across the drought-stricken West, including areas in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, where nine fires have engulfed huge swaths of land.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens on Monday banned the sale of all fireworks. Only public Fourth of July events run by professionals will be permitted there this year.

Although Gov. Gray Davis has not called for a similar ban, the wildfires and dry conditions here have reignited debate over whether fireworks sales are appropriate. Meteorologists say rain is unlikely for at least five months.

Throughout California, 229 cities allow the sale of fireworks, including 38 in Los Angeles County and five in Orange County. But many fireworks are sold through civic organizations, which use the proceeds for philanthropic programs.

"If we were to ban the sale of fireworks, every Little League team, soccer team and all the churches would be coming out of the woodwork after us," said Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater. Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long, whose district includes Fillmore, said she is sensitive to the needs of the 25 local nonprofits that rely on fireworks sales. They include Rotary clubs, high school booster organizations and the Boys & Girls Club of the Santa Clara Valley, which usually raise $50,000 or more each.

Fillmore Fire Chief Pat Askren said the department has had little problem with state-approved fireworks sold in his city. Prohibiting sales won't keep fireworks out of the county as long as residents can buy them elsewhere, he said.

The state fire marshal, he said, believes that banning approved fireworks would only encourage smuggling of illegal types--such as firecrackers, Roman candles, M-80s and cherry bombs--from Mexico, Nevada and Oregon.

Dennis Revell, spokesman for Fullerton-based American Promotional Events Inc., the largest wholesaler of state-approved fireworks, said most fires are caused by improper use of illegal fireworks.

"There's always an element of common sense that relates to anything with a flame," he said. "That doesn't mean you make it illegal."


Times staff writers Kenneth Reich, Sandra Murillo and David Haldane contributed to this report.

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