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A Tradition That Will Not Fizzle Out

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are vilified, criminalized and demonized. They can severely maim and can ignite brush fires.

As Independence Day approaches, the annual chorus of public pleas not to use fireworks resounds across the landscape.

There’s only one other sound that can drown out the clarion call for pyrotechnic abstention--and that would be the howling screech of a Piccolo Pete ($2.99 for a box of six) burning to the ground, an audacious cry of mischief heard throughout the holiday week.

In the 37 of 88 cities in Los Angeles County where fireworks remain legal, cardboard tubes of modified gunpowder with goofy names such as Morning Glory and Howling Madness will be lighted with delight and some measure of abandon.

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Experts say that the attraction to fireworks is primal. Long before companies put fireworks in packages, Native Americans entertained Lewis and Clark by setting fire to fir trees, sending them up like Roman candles.

“There’s a long-standing tradition of fire as entertainment,” said Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University history professor and expert on the history of fire.

“It’s only as we’ve moved into large cities that we’ve eliminated this,” he said. “Now you can barely have candles. This is not a weird thing. The interesting thing is how this is being constrained and redefined, and the ability to do fire is being taken away from individuals.”

Banned in Most of Los Angeles County

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Virtually every affluent and middle-class enclave of Los Angeles County has done away with fireworks. They have been illegal in the city of Los Angeles since 1942.

But in blue-collar communities that stretch from Maywood to Norwalk, to communities in the San Gabriel and Antelope valleys, fireworks remain a Fourth of July tradition despite the urgent warnings from doctors, politicians, children’s advocates and firefighters.

“I’ve been listening to all the officials on TV, I heard the doctor who says he’s the one who tells a parent a child has lost a hand,” said Mike Prokop, first vice president of the Downey Rose Float Assn., which operates a fireworks stand to help pay for its New Year’s Day float. “It makes you wonder, but all these things should be supervised.”

Besides, he said, “it would leave a big hole in our budget if we didn’t do this, unfortunately.”

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Civic organizations and churches in many communities rely on fireworks rather than philanthropists to fund their good works.

Barely a week of early summer sales provides the largest single source of funds for Youth Football in South Gate, one of several neighboring southeast county cities where sales are legal. From $45,000 worth of fireworks, the organization hopes to make $10,000 to $12,000 in profit.

“I don’t think there’s any other fund-raiser that would give you that much money in that little time,” said Lora Gonzalez, president of the group.

Even ministers justify selling legal fireworks. “I thought it was kind of odd when I started,” said Robert Munoz, an assistant pastor at the Bible Assembly Church in South Gate, which maintains a stand. “But the Bible says the riches of the wicked are for the righteous.”

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Proceeds, he said, go to support the youth ministry. “It gives us the opportunity to share the love of God with others,” Munoz said. “So it’s a blessing.”

With the evenings warm and the sun setting late, the colorful fireworks stands, festooned in glowing lights, invite a twilight promenade.

Fathers shepherding sons, parents pushing strollers, a young couple sauntering by--all pause to consider the fireworks displayed at a Lynwood stand on a recent night.

Claudia Chavez, 21, arm in arm with her boyfriend, Eligio De Santiago, 21, tried to explain their attraction to fireworks. “Well, it’s fire,” said De Santiago, laughing.

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To be sure, legal fireworks are pretty tame now. Mostly they just shriek and smoke. You can’t actually buy a firecracker legally anymore, much less M-80s, cherry bombs or bottle rockets. Even traditional sparklers are banned.

California only allows so-called safe and sane fireworks. But as burn specialist Dr. Peter Grossman said: “Any time you’re putting a match to something and maintaining that heat, it’s hot enough to burn skin.”

And many of these legal fireworks can be modified to make more dangerous displays. It’s not uncommon to see a Piccolo Pete hammered into a modified rocket.

Nonetheless, Grossman, who with his father, Dr. A. Richard Grossman, operates the Grossman Burn Center at the Sherman Oaks Hospital and Health Center, said the worst accidents come from illegal fireworks.

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Otherwise, he said, “we have seen very, very few fireworks injuries, and we used to see quite a bit more. Take that for what it’s worth. Maybe the restrictions imposed on people have limited the amount of injuries we see. . . . Perhaps there has been some improvement in the quality of fireworks. But I wouldn’t ever say any firework is completely safe.”

Anti-fireworks activists say that they are not trying to dampen anyone’s fun.

“We teach our kids safe sex; we teach our kids to stay away from harmful people. This goes along with that,” said Jayne Murphy Shapiro, president of the Granada Hills-based KIDS SAFE, a child advocacy group. “We’re really trying to get the point across that if something at 1,200 degrees can burn you, why play around with it? Why not leave it to the person with the license who can show you a beautiful display? Isn’t that enough?”

She is on the side of those who recommend that people celebrate by watching professionally staged fireworks shows.

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A man purchasing fireworks in South Gate said he wasn’t sure if selling fireworks was a good idea. “Yes and no,” he said. Then, pointing to his 5-year-old grandson, he added: “I don’t let him near it. I make him stand way back.”

Vendors preach adult supervision, as well as having customers keep water buckets and garden hoses nearby.

“We tell the kids in the football program, ‘Don’t throw anything and put everything out with a little bit of water,’ ” said South Gate Youth Football coach Al Lopez, a 40-year-old father of six.

At the Palmdale Youth Football League stand, signs caution buyers that fireworks are illegal in all northern Los Angeles County cities except Palmdale. Even so, coach Bill Powers acknowledged that many customers are from Lancaster, Santa Clarita and the San Fernando Valley.

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“We don’t ask people where they are from,” Powers said.

A Significant Fund-Raiser

Wednesday was the first day that vendors could sell fireworks in Santa Ana, one of five Orange County cities that allow fireworks. Business was brisk at the Harbor Boulevard stand sponsored by the Newhope Church. Futi Semanu, a church deacon, said the annual sale of Independence Day fireworks is one of the church’s biggest fund-raisers.

“It’s important for us, because the $3,000 or $5,000 we make is used to finance our Sunday School,” Semanu said. “It’s for the kids. It would be very tough for us if we couldn’t count on this income every year.”

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Kate Holbrook and her son, Kevin, purchased almost $90 in fireworks from Semanu’s stand.

The Aliso Viejo resident said her family planned to set off fireworks July 4, even though pyrotechnics are banned in their community.

“Everyone does it,” Holbrook said. “I don’t see anything wrong, as long as parents light the fireworks or supervise their children. Fireworks and the Fourth of July are a tradition.”

Some city officials argue that fireworks are wholesome fun.

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“It’s just something that’s been done for years,” said Julio Fuentes, city manager of Alhambra, where fireworks are legal. “The individuals who elect to buy them use them in a safe manner. And if it helps the nation celebrate its birthday, that’s terrific. If it helps nonprofit organizations, that’s terrific.”

Alhambra Fire Chief Jim Ballard said that ever since the city outlawed sparklers, “we really haven’t had any injuries in town. People get hurt because of those dang bottle rockets and firecrackers.” Those are illegal and subject to confiscation by police.

“I would prefer that any individual use of fireworks not be allowed in the state because it’s such a dry state,” said Ballard. “But if you’re going to have them anywhere, Alhambra should have them as much as anywhere else.”

The fireworks stands, which opened in Los Angeles County at the beginning of this week and will close Saturday night, are inspected by fire marshals and plastered with warning signs in English and Spanish: No One Under the Age of 16 Will Be Served.

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Cindy Rosales, who has worked in a booth in Lynwood for six years, studied a family considering their fireworks purchase. “That’s how it should be--the parents coming out and supervising their kids,” said Rosales, who refuses to take money from a child even when the parent is standing there.

She said she only sells to the parent.

“Half the stuff in here can’t cause you harm if it’s used the right way. Someone is always going to use it wrong,” Rosales said. “But you can’t punish everyone. If you start outlawing everything, no one will be able to have fun.”

Times staff writers H.G. Reza and Darrell Satzman contributed to this story.

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* BOWL FIREWORKS GURU: Meet the mastermind behind the flashy shows at the Hollywood Bowl. Calendar Weekend

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Legal Fireworks

The Los Angeles County cities that permit fireworks:

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* Alhambra

* Artesia

* Azusa

* Baldwin Park

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* Bell

* Bell Gardens

* Bellflower

* Carson

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* Commerce

* Compton

* Cudahy

* Downey

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* Duarte*

* El Monte

* Hawaiian Gardens

* Hawthorne

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* Huntington Park

* Industry

* Inglewood

* Irwindale

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* La Mirada

* La Puente

* Lakewood

* Lawndale

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* Lynwood

* Maywood

* Montebello

* Monterey Park

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* Norwalk

* Palmdale

* Paramount

* Pico Rivera

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* Rosemead

* Santa Fe Springs

* South El Monte

* South Gate

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* Temple City

Note: In Duarte, fireworks are not permitted in any area north of Royal Oaks Drive except Royal Oaks Park.

Source: Los Angeles County Fire Department


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