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Orange County

Wildfires Spark Debate on Fireworks

Safety: Roadside sales boost community revenue, but dry conditions prompt some areas to consider bans.

June 11, 2002|MARGARET TALEV and GREGORY W. GRIGGS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With rainfall far below normal and wildfires flaring across Southern California, authorities in some areas are considering a ban on sale of Fourth of July fireworks this year.

Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn called Monday for a meeting with the county's fire chief to discuss possible emergency action to suspend the sale of Fourth of July fireworks.

"It would be a horrible thing to sell fireworks when we're burning up as it is," said Flynn, referring to the 21,000-acre wildfire in Los Padres National Forest.

Fillmore is the only city in Ventura County that allows the sale of "safe and sane" fireworks, which do not explode, dart across the ground or lift into the air.

Across California, 229 cities allow the sale of fireworks, including 38 in Los Angeles County. Five of Orange County's 34 cities allow such sales seasonally: Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Stanton. Officials said they would be loath to ban the business because it is the main source of income for many community organizations.

"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," Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater said. "This makes a lot of money for them."

Though fireworks must be set off in the city where they are bought, fire and city officials said that legal fireworks sometimes end up in rural areas.

"Theoretically, they can't take the fireworks into the wild lands, but it happens," said Gary Layman, an education specialist with the Orange County Fire Authority. "Is there a danger? Heck yes."

Laguna Beach is among cities that prohibit the sale of fireworks.

"We think it's too risky to even have the 'safe-and-sane' types, but that's a local decision," said Jim Reed, the city's fire chief.

Scott Brown, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority, said, "We are especially concerned this year. It is no secret that fire conditions are extremely dangerous right now. One errant firework would be all it would take to cause an inferno. Our advice is that the best way to enjoy a safe Fourth of July is to go to a public display."

In Ventura County, at least nine fires in recent years have been ignited by illegal fireworks, Flynn said. The largest burned 4,300 acres in the Ojai Valley in 1999. Firefighting costs totaled more than $5.6 million.

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

Orange County had brush fires in February and April, followed in May by a blaze that burned 1,100 acres near Rancho Santa Margarita, creeping to within 10 feet of homes.

Southern California blazes are among a wave of wildfires sweeping 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.

Dennis Revell, spokesman for Fullerton-based American Promotional Events Inc., a 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."

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

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