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Don't play with fire

As California's dry seasons get drier, it makes less sense to sell and use personal fireworks.

June 30, 2008

Especially bad fire seasons are becoming less special in California. As global warming raises temperatures and lowers precipitation through much of the state, longer and drier fire seasons are predicted for coming decades.

Backyard fireworks, which were never a good idea for a brush-covered state, will make even less sense when the hills turn brown earlier. With firefighters rushing around the state this month squelching various lightning-caused blazes, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had a valid point when he asked Californians to refrain from buying fireworks this year. He is considering a short-term ban, which infuriates the nonprofit groups that rely on fireworks sales for their Little Leagues, soccer clubs or church groups.

The governor's timing is off. Instead of temporarily forbidding sparklers and their pyrotechnic kin, he should be pushing for a permanent, statewide ban on so-called safe and sane fireworks. And the ban should start next year, not after groups already have invested considerable money in setting up their roadside stands this year and are depending on the proceeds.

Legal fireworks have caused relatively little fire damage in recent years; it's unlikely, though possible, that the sales will ignite a major wildfire on Friday. The bigger problem caused by legal fireworks is not fire but injury. For all the "safe and sane" talk, surveys of hospitals show that, year after year, legal fireworks cause more than a third of fireworks-related visits to emergency rooms in California, in cases where the type of fireworks is known. Children and teenagers are by far the most common victims.

That makes the sale of fireworks especially paradoxical: raising money in large part for kids by endangering mainly other kids. The governor is right in saying that people would be better off doing without personal fireworks this year, especially if they live in brushy areas. They can live it up on the Fourth of July with a picnic and a public fireworks display. Meanwhile, nonprofits should start looking for other ways to raise funds in the dry, fire-prone years to come.

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