How Safe, Sane?
Despite pleas by governor, fire officials, most fireworks stands open up
By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Sunday, June 29, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.
Photos by CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat
Many nonprofit groups rely on the money raised by selling fireworks.
Petaluma drug task force director:
"If they'd go after these people with bottle rockets instead of giving them a slap on hand, we'd fare a lot better. I hate mass punishment."
fire chief and part of a group of fire officials strongly opposed to sales:
"We don't believe even so-called safe and sane fireworks belong in the hands of consumers."
Under skies darkened by smoke from some of the state's 1,345 wildfires, dozens of nonprofit groups began selling fireworks Saturday in parts of Sonoma County, ignoring pleas from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and local fire officials to suspend the practice this year.
Fireworks stands opened for business in Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Sebastopol, with red, white and blue banners luring buyers to state-approved devices such as "Super Nova" and "Mad Dod Fountain," which shower sparks in the air. Sales could begin Tuesday in Cloverdale.
Kenny Calkins of Novato said Saturday he plans to spend the Fourth of July with his three sons lighting fireworks. He purchased $40 worth of legal pyrotechnics at a Rohnert Park stand in the Home Depot parking lot, saying it's a fun family tradition.
"It's a kid thing," Calkins said. "Everyone likes to do it."
Sellers said fireworks aren't to blame for the fires that have raged across Northern California the past week and say the profits from sales help pay for worthy programs.
"I feel very sad for the people that are being displaced in their homes," said Tim Mattis, past president of the Rotary Club of Rohnert Park-Cotati, which opened a stand outside Home Depot. "But, if used correctly, our fireworks are a safe and sane way to celebrate the nation's birth and history."
With an explosion of fires sparked by lightning strikes last weekend and fueled by drought conditions, Schwarzenegger on Wednesday asked people not to buy fireworks this year, hoping to prevent the possibility of more fires and sparing crews battling blazes from Big Sur to the Oregon border.
Sonoma County fire officials echoed the concern, saying a lack of rain has created a combustible situation that will only worsen this summer.
In Cloverdale, blanketed by a thick haze from numerous fires in Lake and Mendocino counties, officials asked the Lions Club and Veterans of Foreign Wars to suspend sales. The two nonprofit groups agreed to postpone their opening until Tuesday, reducing the chances of a weekend mishap, said Capt. Al Delsid of the Cloverdale Fire District.
The City Council has scheduled an emergency meeting Monday at 5:30 p.m. to consider suspending the sales.
With most of its small department off fighting fires around the state and fire danger high on the homefront, the department is recommending no fireworks this year.
"Everybody is nervous about fires up north and we have a potential in our community," Delsid said. "Common sense would dictate it's not a good idea to sell fireworks."
The Fourth of July tradition has come under increasing scrutiny over the years for its potential to ignite a parched landscape.
Following extensive damage to a Santa Rosa home from a wildfire started by bottle rockets in 2003, voters banned fireworks altogether, joining four other cities and the unincorporated county in prohibiting their use or sale.
The association of county fire chiefs is strongly opposed to fireworks, but lobbying from the industry and from nonprofit groups that benefit from their sales has blocked bans in other cities.
"We don't believe even so-called safe-and-sane fireworks belong in the hands of consumers," said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Bruce Varner.
Petaluma Chief Chris Albertson's opposition to fireworks has been overruled by the City Council, which decided instead to restrict fireworks in certain fire-prone areas.
Albertson said nonprofit groups could find other ways to raise money. Fireworks are banned in all of Marin and Mendocino counties, where groups have found alternative fund-raising methods.
"I know you'd have to do a lot of car washes and bake sales, but other communities do it," he said. "The fact is, other communities have soccer and baseball. They seem to survive. They flourish."
Some nonprofit groups say they depend on fireworks sales as a major source of funding for programs that fill gaps left by overstretched public agencies.
Dick Sharke, executive director of Petaluma's McDowell Drug Task Force, said the $20,000 he raises each year pays for programs that teach teens about the perils of drinking and driving.
Rather than threatening his funding, authorities should be harder on people who use illegal fireworks, which are more dangerous, he said.
The proliferation of contraband fireworks ruins it for everyone, he said.
"If they'd go after these people with bottle rockets instead of giving them a slap on the hand, we'd fare a lot better," Sharke said. "I hate mass punishment."
In Cloverdale, Jim Pankey of the VFW said the $10,000 he gets from fireworks sales fills his coffers for a year. The group spends the money mostly on college scholarships.
However, Pankey conceded with the drought and growing concern about fire, the future of fireworks sales is shaky.
"I'm pretty sure this is the last year we will sell," Pankey said. "It just keeps getting worse each year."
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 762-7297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Petaluma fire chief says groups can find other ways to raise money:
"I know you'd have to do a lot of car washes and bake sales, but other communities do it."Tim Mattis
the Rotary Club
of Rohnert Park- Cotati:
"If used correctly, our fireworks are a safe and sane way to celebrate the nation's birth and history."