Officials Jittery Over Use of Fireworks in Tinder-Dry County

Times Staff Writer

For most of America the Fourth of July is a time for celebrating the nation's independence with a trip to the beach or a barbecue, but for San Diego's police and fire departments, the holiday means 24 hours of traffic jams, fire hazards and headaches.

Earlier this week, fire officials considered canceling some of the 22 public fireworks displays scheduled throughout the county tonight. As brush fires throughout the state burned out of control, the Office of Emergency Services issued a red flag alert banning the use of unauthorized combustibles within the county. The U.S. Forest Service also declared red-flag alerts for all national forests in Southern California, including the Cleveland National Forest, spokesman Bob Swinford said.

Tonight's displays will occur as scheduled, as fire officials have inspected each site for fire safety. However, according to San Diego Deputy Fire Marshal Al McDonald, some shows will have to meet special qualifications before show time this evening. McDonald required that operators of the Rancho Bernardo and Fairbanks Ranch displays, which he said present the greatest fire hazards, trim canyon foliage and hose down the launching circle before the show.

Most of tonight's fireworks displays will flash and explode above water, where the hazard of igniting a brush fire is reduced but not completely eliminated. The Fire Department has issued an order to close any or all fireworks displays if winds pick up today, since launching fireworks creates a shower of tiny burning embers that can ignite fires.

San Diego fire and police officials are far more worried about personal fireworks. Such fireworks were blamed for 16 fires in San Diego County during the 1984 holiday season.

"Safe and sane" fireworks, so called because they emit noise and sparks but do not actually explode, are legal in some parts of California and available in Orange and Imperial counties. But all fireworks, "safe and sane" or otherwise, are illegal in San Diego County.

Explosive fireworks, which are illegal throughout the state, are often smuggled across the border from Mexico, where they are easily obtained, and sold on the streets or in open-air markets.

"People just don't realize how dangerous these things really are," said Police Department spokesman Bill Robinson.

Most Mexican fireworks are hand made, which means the gunpowder content and fuse length are unregulated. Poppers, which are actually little more than foil wrappers filled with gunpowder, often contain dangerous amounts of the explosive, said U.S. Customs supervisor Ray Rios.

Customs agents confiscate hundreds of pounds of illegal firecrackers each year from tourists who go to all lengths to smuggle the explosives into the United States.

"I know it's crazy but some people even try to hide them in their engines," Rios said.

Fire and police reserve officers will patrol the city's beaches today in two-person teams, confiscating unlicensed fireworks and issuing citations. The possession and sale of fireworks are misdemeanors carrying a $500 fine.

But police say that neither the fine nor the fear of adding to the recent rash of brush fires will keep San Diegans from lighting fireworks. "People don't want to burn down their own homes so they take their firecrackers and go down to the beach where they think it's safe," McDonald said.

"We'll confiscate so many fireworks on the 4th that it will be amazing," McDonald said.

During the 1984 holiday, police and fire squads confiscated several trash-canloads of illegal fireworks.

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