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Fireworks Light Up Coffers Under a Glare of Criticism

Times Staff Writer

A few minutes before fireworks went on sale in Lakewood, Bryan Yoho, 13, unfolded a director’s chair and set it up across from the Pan American Assn.'s booth, a plywood shack brightly hued in red, white, blue and racing-car yellow and topped with two flapping American flags.

His enthusiasm unchecked by the fact he was too young to set foot inside, Bryan had attended the orientation meetings and was prepared to offer purchasing advice from his perch in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven on Paramount Boulevard.

As his grandfather unlocked and flipped up the plywood boards to reveal the array of fireworks inside -- everything from a 79-cent popper to a $499 “Big Bang” box of goodies billed as perfect for any block party -- Bryan’s eyes brightened.

“The best part,” he said of the Fourth of July holiday, “is I get to set off fireworks.”

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But the best part for the Pan American Assn., a civic group that sponsors multicultural festivals and other events, is the $7,000 to $10,000 the group takes in each year during just 56 hours of operation.

That one fundraiser provides the bulk of the annual budget, paying for concerts in the park and making scholarships possible for high school graduates.

The bustle at the stand goes a long way toward explaining why fireworks continue to be sold in scores of cities across Southern California despite decades of warnings by firefighters and federal safety officials that they pose a risk to children and a major fire danger.

The politics of Fourth of July fireworks comes down to one reality: Thousands of nonprofit community organizations counting on the sales often trump grave warnings from local firefighters.

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In California, about 3,500 vendors sell fireworks in 272 municipalities. Nearly all fireworks in the state are sold by volunteers raising money for such groups as the Boy Scouts, peewee football, high school boosters, churches, the Jaycees, Kiwanis and chambers of commerce.

Over the decades since California began regulating the sale and use of fireworks in 1939, selling them to raise money has become entrenched in many communities, effectively making their use common even in neighboring cities that ban them.

The result for many city leaders has been a peculiar straddling of interests, a weighing of safety and noise concerns against tradition and quick cash.

“The sale and use of safe and sane fireworks is part of the fabric of life in Lakewood and has been since the city incorporated in 1954,” said D.J. Waldie, an author, historian and public information officer in the city of about 80,000 just north of Long Beach. “These community-based organizations are significant contributors to the quality of life in Lakewood.”

But even in Lakewood, a quintessential postwar suburb of boxy tract homes proud of its tradition of youth sports and block parties, people are divided on the personal use of fireworks.

For some, the days surrounding the holiday are marked by sleepless nights and barking dogs as fireworks go off well into the early-morning hours. Others see fireworks as a Fourth of July staple, an ingredient of mom-and-apple-pie Americana.

That divide, as well as public safety concerns, has prompted city officials to begin gingerly placing limits on fireworks sales.

In May, the City Council voted to stiffen penalties for the illegal use of fireworks, imposing fines of up to $1,000 and adding the possibility of up to 12 months in jail.

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The plan is to eventually reduce the number of fireworks booths to 25 in the 9 1/2 -square- mile municipality. Already civic groups selling the fireworks are down to 30 from 36 three years ago.

Lakewood has also limited the sale of fireworks to only four of the seven days the state allows. It’s legal to possess them during the days they are on sale and to set them off only on July 4 between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Groups selling fireworks must provide the city with reports showing that proceeds were used to benefit the community.

The goal, Waldie says, is to have the fireworks sales “conform with values we can defend.”

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Behind the metal mesh of the Pan American Assn. booth, Joe Arambel, 66, can keep an eye on his grandson Bryan as well as the nearest competition -- the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce -- operating out of a larger booth just down the street in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart.

“You have a lot of people who complain about fireworks who say we could throw a bake sale and raise the money,” Arambel said with a laugh.

“There’s nothing we could do that could replace fireworks sales. The amount of money we’re able to raise in a few days funds most of what we do the rest of the year.”

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Arambel persuaded the group to get into the fireworks game after volunteering at the Lions Club booth and seeing how much money that organization raised.

Since the Pan American Assn. got its booth six years ago, the group has been able to award 52 scholarships to high school students going to college or vocational school.

“There is no way we could give those out without this booth,” he said.

Nonprofits sell so-called safe and sane fireworks supplied by companies.

Dennis Revell, a spokesman for TNT Fireworks, which supplies Arambel’s organization as well as about 2,800 others in the state, said fireworks are sold on consignment, with the profit split evenly between the wholesaler and vendor. Revell said the profit margin on fireworks sales is about 41%.

Arambel said his fireworks offer a safe alternative to more powerful illicit fireworks -- including cherry bombs and rocket-propelled devices -- often smuggled into California from Nevada and other states where the rules are more lenient.

California restricts items for sale based on how far they shoot sparks and bans all rocket-propelled devices.

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For years, firefighting officials and others have been encouraging the public to go to public shows rather than shoot off their own fireworks.

But this year, financial problems have canceled several major professional shows around Southern California, including the annual display at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. This has heightened concern about a possible increase in individual use.

The tall brush resulting from heavy winter rains also has increased the potential for serious fires, officials said.

A hodgepodge of rules and regulations exists within the six-county region of more than 15 million people living in more than 160 Southern California cities.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department serves 32 communities that allow safe and sane fireworks and 26 that do not. In any number of locations, including the boundary of Lakewood and Long Beach, safe and sane fireworks are sold at booths just across the street from cities where their use is illegal.

The region is so dense that legal distinctions from city to city often seem meaningless.

For example, Pasadena bans personal fireworks, but they are readily available in nearby Alhambra and Monterey Park. Many cities in the South Bay also have bans, but fireworks are for sale a few miles away in Gardena. In Orange County, the vast majority of cities ban fireworks, but they are for sale in Costa Mesa, Garden Grove and Santa Ana.

Often, cities have moved to crack down only after a major fireworks problem. Anaheim, for example, banned all fireworks sales in 1987 after a Fourth of July bottle rocket blast sparked a massive blaze that destroyed 94 apartments.

Officials said bans -- coupled with public education -- can make a difference.

In Los Angeles, where all amateur fireworks are illegal, injuries and property damage are down dramatically from the early 1980s, when efforts to urge people to visit professional shows rather than set off their own displays began. In 1981, fireworks caused 500 injuries and $2.1 million in damage. Last year the city reported 88 fireworks-related injuries and $36,000 in property damage.

National statistics indicate injuries related to fireworks -- legal or illegal -- have remained steady. In 2004, an estimated 9,600 people were injured in fireworks-related accidents in injuries mostly clustered around the Fourth of July. Three-quarters of those hurt were male and about 40% were children, many burned by sparklers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest rate of injury is to boys 10 to 14.

Last year, eight people died of fireworks-related injuries nationwide, including a 45-year-old Bakersfield man killed by a homemade shrapnel device set off at a block party.

With fireworks stands across the state doing brisk business, officials in neighboring cities are bracing for problems.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, whose department contracts with Lakewood, has suggested creating designated areas in the region where fireworks could be set off under supervision.

“That would be a reasonable way to let people have their fun and keep it off the neighborhood streets,” Baca said.

But at the Pan American stand in Lakewood, Arambel and others doubt that people would be willing to give up the right to set off fireworks where they choose. For Arambel, it’s a tradition that is handed down through generations.

“I really like to see the kids who come in and their eyes just light up,” he said. “I try to throw in a small item and tell them: ‘This is just for you.’ ”


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