Fireworks Fanciers Take a Stand (Wherever They Can Find One)

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Remembering Independence Days past, they pack the kids in the car and search for a piece of Americana.

Their own tidy cities say no way: no fireworks here. So they cross the borders to communities where buying and using fireworks is still as much of a Fourth of July tradition as barbecues and block parties.

The ritual began Friday, as red, white and blue stands popped up in cities around Southern California. Volunteers lined the shelves with monster blasts, laser dragons and lava cones. Buyers filled bags with packages of the pyrotechnic toys.

"It goes back to their childhoods," said Mike Williams, who runs a stand each year in Alhambra. "It makes the Fourth that much more special."

Only "safe and sane" fireworks--which fizzle on the ground, rather than explode in the air--are legal in California. Even these are often banned by local officials.

Fireworks stands will open today in Buena Park and Sunday in Costa Mesa, Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Stanton.

Friday afternoon, Terry Ferguson stood on a ladder to hang light fixtures inside a booth on Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa.

"It's a major fund-raiser," said Ferguson, a parent volunteer for the Orange County United Soccer Club. The group's fireworks booth is one of 45 in Costa Mesa. "There's always a battle for good locations. The sales carry us through the year," he said.

Some of the group's 40 volunteers will began stocking the booth today for the four days of sales that will provide much of the funding for soccer field rentals, coaching fees, travel fees and equipment in the coming year.

Customers were already scoping out the possibilities Friday. John Radonovich, 44, said he traveled from Scottsdale, Ariz., with his family to buy fireworks, which are prohibited in his home state.

"It's been frustrating," he said. "I came all the way over here to buy fireworks, and they're so hard to find. I've looked everywhere."

Vendors were not the only ones gearing up. Robert Cochran, chief electrical inspector for Costa Mesa, spent Friday driving from booth to booth to inspect wiring.

"Some people go crazy with the lights," Cochran said as he checked outlets at Ferguson's booth.

In Los Angeles County, fireworks are prohibited in 49 of 87 cities and in all unincorporated areas.

Lakeview Terrace resident David Manning drove an hour to a booth in Fillmore, the only city in Ventura County where "safe and sane" fireworks are allowed. As he bought $200 in fireworks, Manning said he is breaking the law in the name of patriotism and tradition. "It's just something we've always done," he said.

Safety is always a concern, fire officials said.

Additional firefighters and other emergency crews will stand by for the holiday at all 62 Orange County Fire Authority stations, said spokesman Dennis Shell.

"We just want to remind people that if they're going to discharge, use common sense," Shell said. The county had 85 blazes and 11 injuries reported from fireworks incidents last year, he said.

High temperatures and dry vegetation mean potential danger and add to the fire risk, Shell said. He offered these tips for safety:

* After use, fireworks should be doused in a garbage can half-filled with water.

* Never let children use fireworks unsupervised.

* Keep a garden hose nearby in case of an emergency.

* Consider attending a public fireworks show instead.

Statewide, hospitals reported 188 injuries caused by fireworks in 1999 (the latest year for which numbers are available), compared with 272 five years earlier, according to the state fire marshal's office. And in Los Angeles County last year, more than $500,000 in fire damage was caused by illegal fireworks from June 17 to July 16.

But fireworks distributors maintain that problems arise from illegal fireworks such as M-80s, cherry bombs and bottle rockets.

"We all agree that illegal fireworks have to be stopped," said Dennis Revell, a spokesman for American Promotional Events. "They are public enemy No. 1 for the fire services."

"It's a big industry and we are never going to abolish it," said Joe Luna, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department. "So we just sit and keep our fingers crossed."

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Times correspondent Karin Grennan contributed to this report.

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