David Manning is breaking the law in the name of tradition and patriotism.
During his lunch break, the welder drove an hour from his job in Lake View Terrance to one of about two dozen fireworks booths in Fillmore, the only city in Ventura County where it’s legal to buy, possess and detonate the pyrotechnics.
Manning bought about $180 in fireworks for himself and his boss and returned to work, prepared to set off a fireworks display for his extended family on the Fourth of July. Just by transporting the fireworks outside the city, Manning had violated a county fire ordinance.
“It’s illegal, but it’s safe and it’s tradition,” said the soft-spoken Manning, who was waiting when the Fillmore High School Band Boosters booth opened for business earlier this week for its first sales of the year. “It’s just something we’ve always done.”
Buying Piccolo Petes, Morning Glories and Luck of the Irish in Fillmore is part of what makes the Fourth of July special for Manning and thousands of others. While other towns prohibit fireworks, this city of about 14,000 lets 25 local nonprofit groups sell fireworks each year from stands along California 126. Most groups ring up about $50,000 in sales each year, some generating nearly $100,000, said Deputy City Clerk Steve McClary.
Churches, youth groups and service organizations have come to depend on the money. Participants include the Boys & Girls Club of Fillmore, the local search and rescue team, Fillmore Little League and the Santa Clara River Valley Railroad Historical Society, which can operate their booths until Thursday.
“For a lot of these groups this is their major, if not their only, fund-raising effort for the year, and Fillmore relies on a lot of these organizations to meet a lot of the needs of its residents,” McClary said. “I don’t know if some of these groups would be out there or be able to do what they do today if they didn’t have the proceeds from the fireworks sales.”
Last year, the band boosters sold $77,000 in fireworks, 35% of which--about $27,000--was profit.
“There wouldn’t be an extracurricular band program without it,” said organizer John Schaper from the group’s long, white wooden booth in the parking lot of Super A Foods. “It pays for instrument repair. It pays for competition fees. It pays for drum major leadership camp. It pays for extra instruction. It helps pay for color guards.”
The nonprofit groups agree to spend most of their proceeds on activities that benefit Fillmore. The amount the groups are charged for permit fees, when combined with nearly $3,000 in donations from fireworks companies, pay for the city’s annual $10,000 fireworks show, McClary said.
Still, Fillmore’s fireworks sales are a tradition county fire officials could do without.
“A lot of those charities, those service organizations, they have to do what they have to do,” said Joe Luna, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department. “But you think they would find an alternate means of raising funds.”
The potential for danger is there, Luna said. In December 1999, two teenagers playing with illegal fireworks sparked the Ranch fire, which destroyed one home and burned 4,300 acres of forest east of Ojai. It took 1,600 firefighters working through Christmas to extinguish the blaze at a cost of nearly $5 million. The teens were each sentenced to 1,000 hours of community service, $150 a month in restitution for at least five years and five years’ probation.
Even fireworks deemed “safe and sane” by the state fire marshal’s office can cause problems, Luna said.
Five years ago, two teenagers started a 400-acre brush fire in the hills above Ventura while playing with fireworks they said their parents had bought in Fillmore. The families’ insurance companies agreed to repay the Ventura County Fire Department for the cost of fighting the blaze.
“The vegetation is very dry [now],” Luna said. “It won’t take much to ignite the grasses.”
Such was the case Friday, as crews battled a brush fire between Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley that fire investigators say may have been started by fireworks.
McClary said most fires and injuries are caused by illegal fireworks, not the “safe and sane” variety sold in Fillmore.
“If you’re using legal fireworks and using common sense and not throwing things that are supposed to be on the ground and parents are supervising their children, I think that mitigates a lot of the risk,” he said.
Kelly and Selma Ross of Castaic don’t let their two children light any of the family’s fireworks and they always keep a bucket of water nearby when they set anything off. It’s actually Dad, not 10-year-old Kyle or 8-year-old Erik, who gets the biggest rush.
“Let’s go smoke the beach out,” Kelly Ross said as he tucked $200 in fireworks under his arm and headed for a weekend camp-out at the Rincon.
“It’s a big industry and we are never going to abolish it,” said Luna, acknowledging that no fire officials look for offenders setting off fireworks outside the Fillmore city limits. “The best that we can do as the Ventura County Fire Department is give the consumer information. So we just sit and keep our fingers crossed.”