Holiday's Explosive Issue : Fireworks Sales in Five South Bay Cities Ignites Controversy in Neighboring Communities

Times Staff Writer

For many people, the Fourth of July means firecrackers, hot barbecue, cold beer, picnics and fireworks displays.

But for Robert Gorman and his neighbors, the Fourth of July is "a mess."

"We all stay home, wet down the roofs, keep watch and pray that this isn't the year they burn us down," said Gorman, who lives in the Rolling Ranchos section of Lomita.

Gorman, like some other residents of Rolling Ranchos and the neighboring Palos Verdes Peninsula, fears that Lomita's sale of so-called "safe and sane" fireworks will increase the potential for fireworks-related fires.

That fear has been heightened this week by the rash of deadly and destructive fires in Southern California's brush which has been made tinder-dry by record high temperatures.

'Safe and Sane'

"Safe and sane" fireworks refer to those permitted under state law unless cities or counties ban them. They include sparklers, smoke "snakes," cone-shaped fountains that spout multicolored sparks and "party poppers," which emit paper streamers with a satisfying pop.

Lomita is one of five South Bay cities--Inglewood, Carson, Lawndale and Hawthorne are the others--that annually permit the sale of fireworks during the holiday week. In all those cities, only nonprofit organizations such as the Kiwanis Club, Elks Club, Little League and church groups are allowed to sell the fireworks.

For them it is a major fund-raiser that grosses more than $500,000 throughout the five cities in a matter of days. More than 40% is pure profit.

For their neighbors it is a major headache.

Two years ago, Rolling Hills Estates Mayor Jerry Belsky proposed that his city station a sheriff's car on the border with Lomita, to catch residents-turned-desperadoes as they smuggled the contraband fireworks from a border stand in Lomita. South Bay cities that ban fireworks sales also prohibit their possession or use.

Discourage Buying

"We figured even if the police didn't actually arrest people, just having the squad car there would have a discouraging effect," Belsky said. "Unfortunately, the Sheriff's Department didn't feel it had the authority to do that." Sheriff's deputies patrol both cities.

But there is still concern, he said.

"On top of the injuries these fireworks cause, we have an additional concern in that the entire Peninsula is a very high-risk area in terms of fire," he said. "We get a fire started in one of the canyons, with all that dry brush, and you can see whole neighborhoods wiped out."

Much of that fear stems from just such an incident in July, 1973, when a fireworks-sparked blaze raced through the Peninsula, causing more than $14 million damage in Rancho Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills.

"We don't want the Peninsula to burn down the way it almost did then," he said. "We got lucky that time."

Responsible for Fires, Injuries

No city-by-city breakdown was available, but state statistics for Los Angeles County show that fireworks were responsible for 186 fires and $96,740 in damage in 1984. That figure represents a dramatic drop from 1983, when fireworks sparked 391 fires countywide that did more than $400,000 damage. Similarly, injuries dropped to 158 in 1984 from 250 in 1983. In both years, about half those injuries were caused by legal fireworks.

Joan Jennings, spokeswoman for the state fire marshal's office, said that a study is under way to determine the cause of the drop.

In Lomita, the Rolling Ranchos Residential Assn. recently submitted a petition signed by all 211 of its members asking the City Council to place on the April, 1986, ballot a proposal for a ban on the sale of fireworks. Despite heated opposition from service clubs, the item passed unanimously.

Said Lomita Councilman Robert Hargrave: "We've been getting pressure all right. We get letters every year from Rolling Hills Estates asking us not to sell fireworks. I conducted an informal poll when I was running for election in 1983, and 60% of the residents I talked to said they favored a ban."

The major roadblock to such a ban, he said, is the objections of service organizations.

"Charity groups are the biggest pro-fireworks bloc. They definitely have a vested interest in seeing Lomita continue to sell fireworks.

"Incidentally, every member of the City Council belongs to one of those organizations," he added.

Hargrave, who belongs to the Holy Name Society at St. Margaret Mary Church, said his group nets about $10,000 annually from the sale of fireworks. That money, he said, provides support for the church's elementary school, buys sports equipment, pays for refurbishing classrooms, provides scholarships, and purchases library and school books.

"We'd really be hurting if we lost that money," he said. "A lot of programs would have to be curtailed.

"The worst part is, people will still get fireworks. They'll either get them from some other city, like Carson, or turn to illegal ones. We'll be the losers."

In Inglewood, it is not only the charity groups that have a vested interest in the continuing sale of fireworks. The city itself takes 10% of the gross revenue for the Fire Department--a practice that reaps between $7,000 and $8,000 yearly for the department's public education and service programs.

Benefits Cited

"I believe the benefits from selling fireworks far outweigh the consequences," Inglewood Fire Chief Robert Bean said. "The money the Fire Department gets supports cardiopulmonary resuscitation seminars, fire safety school programs and training aids. That money cannot be spent in any other way."

Bean said the city takes "extra precautions," such as forbidding the sale of sparklers. State statistics for 1984 show for the third year in a row that sparklers are the No. 1 cause of fireworks-related burn injuries, and accounted for 139 injuries in 1984, including 10 eye injuries. Hawthorne has a similar ban on sparklers, but the other three South Bay cities that allow fireworks sales permit them. Inglewood also requires service clubs to distribute a department-printed fireworks safety bulletin with every bag of fireworks sold.

"If people are taught to use them properly, 'safe and sane' fireworks are just that--safe," Bean said. "Anything can be dangerous if it's misused. Last year, we had not one fireworks-related injury or fire attributable to legal fireworks. I like to think it's because we're careful. If we know a neighborhood is getting together to put on a private display, we let them barricade the street, and we put someone down there to supervise. If we could keep the illegals out, we'd be in good shape."

Worst Day of Year

Lawndale City Manager Paul Philips disagrees.

"Personally, I'm opposed to the sale or use of any kind of fireworks," he said. "If you've ever had to work the Fourth of July in government, it's the worst day of the year--too many injuries and too many fires, from both the safe-and-sane and the illegals. It's just a real trauma day. I know we allow the sale of legal fireworks, but to me it's just real clear that it's not a good thing to have. The city puts on a free fireworks show and I just wish people could be satisfied with that. I think we've become too urbanized for people to blow fireworks just anywhere. It's too dangerous."

Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief Ray Brunstrom pointed to a fire in Lawndale last month that caused more than $23,000 damage in minutes when an illegal skyrocket landed on a shed, setting it and several nearby cars on fire. Lawndale contracts with the county for fire protection.

"It's already beginning," he said. "From here on in, we stay pretty busy. Normally we have one or two fires a day in the area we cover. Fourth of July, we sometimes do 5 or 10 times that many."

Major Source of Revenue

While most cities that sell fireworks say they are reluctant to snatch a major source of revenue from the service clubs, Torrance Mayor Jim Armstrong says the results are worth it.

Since banning the sale or use of all fireworks in 1982, Torrance has noted a "dramatic decrease" in fireworks-related injuries and fires, Armstrong said.

"We told the clubs they'd just have to find some other way to raise funds," he said. "For all the good that's done through that money, it really isn't worth the injury of a single child, the loss of a single eye, the destruction of a single home."

Torrance Fire Marshal Denny Haas said fireworks-related fires in the city dropped to eight last year, with no financial loss, from a high of 29 fires and nearly $10,000 property damage in 1981, the year before the ban. Injuries dropped to three in 1984, down from 14 in 1981.

"Fourth of July used to be a nightmare for us," Haas said. "We'd have fire trucks that would go out on one call, and before they could get back to the station, they'd wind up going to 14 more in one outing. It's still not a normal day by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a lot better than it was."

Chance to Operate Booths

To compensate for the loss of revenue, Armstrong said, the city offered service clubs the chance to operate booths at the city's annual Independence Day celebration, where they could sell flags, food, and other non-explosive items.

"This year we'll have 50 booths at our celebration," he said. "I don't think the organizations were really hurt by our decision. Clubs in other cities manage some way."

"That's just not true," Torrance Elks' Club secretary Jim Nix responded. He said his branch of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks has been "hurt badly" by the ban.

"I'm not against safety, but the state's the one that has said these fireworks are safe. We did a lot of good with the money we got from selling fireworks. I just don't think it's fair.

"We used to make $4,000 to $5,000 in the space of about three days," he said. "They take that away from us and what do they offer in return? A booth where the best we could come up with was nachos and cheese.

"We made maybe a couple of hundred dollars--not even a dent."

Cut Back Services

Nix said club members tried other methods of fund raising, but they were unable to match the profits from fireworks sales.

"We've had to penny-pinch and cut out many of our services," he said, "like donations to cerebral palsy. We even took our listings out of the white pages because we saved $7.25 a month that way. On top of that, we're still bordered all around by cities selling fireworks."

One of those cities is nearby Carson, which is by far the largest supplier of legal fireworks in the South Bay.

Organizations in Carson raise about $280,000 yearly through the sale of fireworks, according to Ferrell Snead, the city's revenue manager, and despite the protests of neighboring cities, there's no indication that Carson will ban fireworks in the future.

"We're very happy with things just the way they are," Snead said. "We don't get any complaints from anyone. Residents have never said they want to ban fireworks, and we don't have a real problem with fires or injuries."

For Snead, there is a larger issue.

"This country was born on freedom," he said. "That's not flag-waving or anything. We're just very individualistic. It's in our nature to want to do things ourselves in the privacy of our own backyards. It's fighting against the American spirit to tell people they can't do that."

Following is a list of the South Bay cities that permit the sale of "safe-and-sane" fireworks, the number of stands in each city, and the amount that is made annually from the sale of those fireworks.

LOMITA: seven stands, grossing about $100,000.

HAWTHORNE: 12 stands, grossing about $50,000.

INGLEWOOD: 12 stands, grossing about $80,000.

CARSON: 28 stands, grossing about $280,000

LAWNDALE: six stands, no statistics available on gross receipts.

(Source: city officials in the five cities)

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