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Ventura County

Fireworks Sales Begin With Bang

Fillmore: Despite the high danger of brush fires, dozens of customers flock to the only city in Ventura County where the items can be legally bought.

June 29, 2002|JESSICA BLANCHARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Caraveo knows fireworks can be dangerous--he nearly blew off his hand while playing with illegal firecrackers as a teenager.

But that painful memory didn't deter the 29-year-old Encino resident from making the nearly 45-mile drive to Fillmore on Friday afternoon to legally purchase fireworks for his Fourth of July celebration.

"This year, more than anything, this is for my 2-year-old," he said. "Seeing his eyes light up. That's my celebration."

Buying fireworks is illegal everywhere in Ventura County except in this rural city, which on the first day of sales attracted dozens of out-of-towners who spent hundreds of dollars to purchase Piccolo Petes, Killer Bees, sparklers and smoke bombs.

Dry conditions have made this one of the worst fire seasons in years, and officials worry that a stray spark even from so-called safe and sane fireworks could cause a major brush fire, such as the Wolf blaze, which burned nearly 23,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest earlier this month.

County fire officials asked Fillmore to suspend firework sales this year in light of the added danger. The City Council denied the request, saying the sales discourage the use of illegal fireworks--those that lift in the air or explode and which are most likely to cause a fire."It's a pretty unpopular idea" to eliminate firework sales, said Fillmore Fire Chief Pat Askren. Though he personally would support a temporary ban, he said his job is to follow the wishes of the City Council.

"Somehow, people think it's a God-given right to set off fireworks," Askren said of the sales, which began at noon Friday. "I just hope and pray that it doesn't cause injury to someone. And that people use common sense."Fireworks sales are the biggest source of income for the 26 charities, churches and nonprofit groups operating booths in Fillmore, said Barbara Workman of the Fillmore Women's Service Club, who worked at her group's stand on California 126. Last year, these groups made profits of nearly $450,000 from fireworks sales.

With most groups on Friday raking in upward of $60 per purchase, it's unlikely an alternate fund-raiser would generate as much revenue.

"Most fires are started by illegal fireworks, and you can't stop people from using those," Workman said. "I don't think we should be penalized because of the few who misuse fireworks. The whole town depends on this."

It's difficult to find anyone in Fillmore who supports a fireworks ban. Any concern about a potential brush fire is outweighed by the local charities' need for the money.

Caraveo thinks a ban would be ineffective. "Every year, I have to go farther and farther to get the safe and sane fireworks," he said.It's easy to purchase illegal fireworks, but "at least this gives people the chance to obey the law," said Dwight Magness, who was helping out at the Fillmore Women's Service Club stand.

But just taking the fireworks outside the city limits is breaking the law. And several customers on Friday admitted that is what they intended to do.

Simi Valley resident Alberto Suarez perused the selection of fireworks at one booth, searching for something suitably "loud" for his children. Though signs warned customers that fireworks are illegal outside Fillmore, Suarez shrugged. "If they bust me, they bust me," he said.

Other customers scoffed at the idea that safe and sane fireworks might contribute to or cause a brush fire.

"I could care less about the danger," said Casey Scorza, 17, of Santa Clarita. He said his father's house burned down in a wildfire last August, but that hasn't dampened his desire to set off fireworks this year.

While he said he understands concerns about irresponsible fireworks use, he doesn't think he should have to sacrifice his Independence Day fun.

"Why worry about it?" agreed his companion, 16-year-old Heinrich Hindler of Santa Clarita, who spent about $60 Friday. "There are dangers everywhere--I don't know why they focus on fireworks."

Farther up the road, Zack Mena, 15, and Paul Sexton, 16, drove in from Acton to purchase nearly $100 worth of fireworks that they planned to set off in the desert. Mena said the state-approved fireworks the pair bought in Fillmore could better be described as "safe and lame," but that they would be "kind of fun to throw at each other."

Those running the booths say they can't guarantee customers will use the fireworks properly, though they hand out fliers urging safe and legal use. And each booth must pass safety inspections by the fire marshal.

"It almost sounds cold, but what more can you do?" wonders David Pele, president of Maranatha Fellowship church, which operates a booth along a shady patch up the road from most of the other fireworks stands. "You're selling a product that you know is illegal [outside Fillmore]. We do know a lot of fireworks don't stay here. But people are going to do what they want."

Ventura County Fire Department officials recently produced fliers to remind residents there is "zero tolerance" for fireworks outside Fillmore.

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