In The Pipeline: The bright side of fireworks

You can't say he didn't start things off with a bang.

One of Mayor Don Hansen's first orders of business after being appointed last year was to try and lift the 24-year ban on state-approved fireworks in Huntington Beach.

In December, Hansen outlined his concept of a two-year pilot program that would allow what are called "safe and sane" fireworks on sidewalks and alleyways on Fourth of July only, from noon until 10 p.m.

Additionally, the plan includes "fireworks-free zones" to be located in parks, at beaches, within environmentally sensitive areas and downtown. (The plan would also require, in accordance with law, that organizations obtain proper permits before selling fireworks.)

This past week, the City Council passed the plan 5 to 2, with Joe Shaw and Connie Boardman opposed. Huntington Beach is now one of seven cities in Orange County that will allow fireworks (currently, Buena Park, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Costa Mesa, Westminster and Stanton allow the "safe and sane" variety).

Had they had a vote, the police and fire chiefs no doubt would have voted against the fireworks as well, as represented by their thoughtful comments during a recent public hearing.

It's been a predictably polarizing, contentious debate the last few weeks. I'm acquainted with, to some degree, all but one of the City Council members, and I think everyone represented themselves true to their values and beliefs. But I was curious why the mayor chose to essentially start his term with an issue this hot.

After the vote Tuesday, we spoke for a while.

Hansen told me the idea was "sparked" last year, sitting in his driveway having a discussion with some neighbors on the Fourth of July. The group was lamenting the fact that they couldn't enjoy a small, reasonable show in their driveways.

They talked about growing up and the fun they all had setting off fountains and lighting sparklers and how they wished their kids could experience the same thing. That's when Hansen tossed out the idea of lifting the ban. The reaction was swift and thorough throughout the neighborhood: "Do it!"

And while it may look like this was a short-fused priority, Hansen said the timing was merely to give people enough time to absorb the idea — nearly five months to get educated and prepared.

"Public safety, nonprofits, the public, of course — we all need to work together to make sure this is implemented responsibly," he said. "Let's be frank — it happens already. People are using fireworks in Huntington Beach. So let's manage it safely, for people's enjoyment, and continue to focus on not allowing the illegal things, aerials, rockets, things that explode — none of those are part of this ordinance. Those are still illegal, and we will still go after those."

Hansen shared that while he's personally received overwhelming support from the public at large (via emails and in person at public appearances), the main opposition he has experienced has come from two groups: "Senior citizens and animal activists. I respect their points of view, but our family has a dog, too, and we take proper precautions on the Fourth with our pet. This is just one day of the year we are talking about."

Then there are the oppositions from the fire and police chiefs. I was curious what Hansen thought of those.

"They are both highly professional," he said. "I've been talking to them and I fully understand the built-in resistances. I just respectfully disagree with them and see why it would be hard for them to advocate this. I get their point.

"But I've also spoken with many line-level public safety officers, the people on the street — and they all seem fine with it. Also, as far as the environmental impact, as long as people clean up properly, as will be part of the ordinance, I think all will be OK. Again, this is just about people acting responsibly and playing within the rules."

Fireworks were banned in 1987, following an Orange County Grand Jury report that recommended a countywide ban. Since then, fireworks-related damages have been reduced. But Hansen thinks times have changed.

"I think the fear of property and environmental destruction, this sense of anarchy that might ensue — I think it is highly overstated and exaggerated," he said. "Other communities navigate this, and so can we. Our community has great pride, and the city is a different place than it was in 1987.

"And many of the stats quoted in those fireworks studies include fireworks that still won't be legal here. Maybe I just have more faith in the community and the visitors we have here. But I think this will add a lot of fun to the holiday, and again, we have months to educate people. And we will."

Many booster groups and other nonprofits are already lining up for the permit lottery that will allow them to sell the fireworks at the 10 stands to be located in Huntington Beach (20 of them in the second year). And Hansen thinks those stands could generate upward of $1 million in revenue the first year.

Speaking as one who appreciates fireworks (and regularly purchases them each year, legally, to enjoy them where allowed), my main concerns with this involved the opinions expressed by Fire Chief Patrick McIntosh and Police Chief Ken Small. I trust those guys. That said, it is almost inconceivable to imagine them backing this, and so I appreciate their stance and I'm sure all will rise to the occasion.

As far as some of the public pushback, I think the gloom-and-doom scenarios seem exaggerated, only because of what we are talking about.

There are no "explosives" involved here. No M-80s, cherry bombs or bottle rockets. No Roman candles, firecrackers, rockets, missiles, shells or aerial cakes. Rather, this is about simpler novelties, like fountains, sparklers, glo-worms, ground spinners and the like. All requiring careful handling, of course, but generally speaking are fairly innocent stuff.

There are statistics to support both sides, as usual. But at the end of the day (or night, as this situation will have it) I know a lot of the fear here comes down to worrying about the small minority that will act irresponsibly. But why let them drive the train? God forbid, if a child is injured, it will not be the City Council's fault, it will be on the parents who did not supervise their child. Just as it is if a kid gets hurt at the new skate park by not wearing a helmet and pads.

If people break the law or act irresponsibly, they should (and will hopefully) be held accountable. This is simply about personal responsibility. But certain people will act stupid and reckless with or without a law. If someone is bent on obtaining M-80s and aerials, they will get them. But maybe lifting this ban will alleviate some of that.

I'd be lying if I didn't say I wasn't looking forward to a bit of (responsible) fun in an increasingly rigid world that's becoming choked with too many rules and fun-robbing regulations. So yes, look for a Psychedelic Screeching Owl Fountain or two in the Epting driveway this year.

Look, it's just a two-year pilot program. Let's try to make it fun. Let's definitely make it safe and responsible.

And let's get on to the bigger issues.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at

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