Countless Southern Californians celebrated this holiday weekend by blowing stuff up, setting other stuff on fire and launching exploding projectiles into the region's amber waves of dangerously dry grassland.
With all of those fireworks going off in the heart of fire season, the Fourth of July has long been the busiest and most frightening time of the year for firefighters. But fire officials across the region Sunday said they were relieved that they were able to snuff out dozens of weekend fires -- many of them caused by fireworks -- in buildings and brush while largely avoiding serious injuries and property damage.
Fire officials credited their success to solid firefighting, but also to preemptive tactics meant to stop fires before they started -- or at least before they got out of control. Most departments increased their staffing at fire stations and dispatch centers, where, in some cases, July 4 call volumes were twice the daily average.
In Los Angeles County, officials expected temperatures in the triple digits and sent 10 extra engines to the fire-prone Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys as a precaution. The force helped contain a 150-acre blaze that started Saturday in Agua Dulce before the fire could seriously threaten a nearby trailer park.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Fires -- An article in Monday's California section incorrectly said there were several Independence Day-related fires in Stanton. There were no fires in Stanton, but the Orange County Fire Authority reported several suspicious fires around the county.
Los Angeles County officials also encouraged residents to leave the fireworks to the professionals, with a toll-free number listing organized fireworks displays.
Fire inspectors in San Bernardino County prowled neighborhoods confiscating illegal fireworks and encouraging residents to report rogue fireworks displays to a tip line.
One tip led them to a 1,000-pound stash of illegal fireworks in a Rialto garage. A man who had allegedly been selling them was arrested on felony charges, and a bomb squad was called in to help haul the fireworks out, Rialto Fire Capt. Robert Nelson said.
Despite such precautions, one Rialto apartment building was destroyed Friday after illegal fireworks landed on the roof, Nelson said. One person was treated for burns, and three families were sent to the Red Cross to find shelter, according to San Bernardino County fire officials.
And in Orange County, fire officials said illegal airborne fireworks caused a two-acre brush fire that threatened three homes in Monarch Bay. Dozens of smaller fires were caused by fireworks in the cities of Stanton and Buena Park, said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Stephen Miller.
Even the professional pyrotechnists seemed to cause accidents over the weekend: Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mark Savage said a 25-acre blaze Friday night in the Santa Clarita Valley was possibly caused by the fireworks spectacular at the Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park.
County crews spent the weekend battling other fires on Santa Clarita's east side, as well as in Bell Gardens, Palmdale and Whittier, where a 10-acre brush fire was also believed to have been started by fireworks. But with the exception of a firefighter who had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, none of those fires resulted in injuries or lost homes, Savage said.
"It was, as expected, a very busy Fourth of July in terms of responses for the L.A. County Fire Department," Savage said. "But we were able to take care of them due to the experience gained from many years of working during the Fourth of July."
High temperatures, dry conditions and the possibility of gusty winds should keep Los Angeles County firefighters on heightened alert through at least this evening, Savage said, with extra fire patrols and water tankers dispatched to high-risk areas.
Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Brian Humphrey said the department responded to a "handful" of holiday-related fires over the weekend, from fireworks to "people burning their hands on barbecues."
"We're pleased to report that none caused any serious injury or loss of life," he said.
But Humphrey also noted that the most intense period of the fire season was yet to come. This spring's plentiful rainfall was welcome in a region in an extended drought cycle, and the moisture reduced the risk of fire throughout May and June. But the thick fields of grasses that the rains brought are beginning to dry out, creating more fuel than in previous years in the canyons and hills.
Even without fireworks, this is a time of year when firefighters have their hands full: On Saturday, it took 200 firefighters from three agencies to put out a fire of indeterminate cause that burned 35 acres of the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County. And on Sunday, a blaze at Lake Elizabeth burned 10 acres before it was knocked down by Los Angeles County firefighters.
But it's fireworks that are the bane of firefighters every July 4. San Bernardino Fire Department dispatcher Sue Hood said the majority of her department's 81 fire calls over the weekend were probably fireworks-related, while in Orange County, firefighters said they were called to at least 36 illegal fireworks tips on the Fourth of July.
Laws for fireworks sales vary among Southern California municipalities. The city of Los Angeles has outlawed fireworks sales since World War II, Humphrey said.
But sales of some fireworks are legal in cities such as Monterey Park, where seasonal fireworks stands lined the main thoroughfares Friday, doing a brisk business in Bunker Busters, Quiet Riots and other products. Curtis Patton of Blockbuster Fireworks said his customers had driven from as far away as Victorville, Hollywood and Bakersfield.
Orange County Fire Authority's Miller said the town of Buena Park, which allows fireworks sales, looked like a war zone Friday night, with "aerial fireworks going off all over the place."
"It's absolutely a miracle that we haven't had more people hurt or houses burn down," Miller said.