Wednesday, June 18, 2008

County bans all fireworks


For decades local authorities have told Santa Barbara County residents that all fireworks were illegal. However, officials revealed yesterday that “safe and sane” fireworks, such as sparkers, were in fact legal.
“Many of us have been saying [they were illegal] so long we wrongly assumed it was true and it was not true,” said County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow.
When County Fire officials realized last year that a law banning “safe and sane” fireworks wasn’t yet on the books, the fire code, which is awaiting approval from the Board of Supervisors, was updated with just such a ban. Explosive fireworks, which either shoot into the air or explode on the ground, have been illegal for years.
But with approval of the updated code not expected until August, and conditions for disastrous fires ripening with each passing day, fire officials asked the supervisors to approve an “urgency ordinance” banning all fireworks in the unincorporated areas of the county.
The board approved the ordinance yesterday with a 4-1 vote, with Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone dissenting.
Though Firestone said he agreed with County Fire officials that fireworks are a hazard in this county, he said giving up fireworks is akin to an attack on the independence of the United States.
“What you’re trying to do is what the British tried to [do] back in 1776 when we celebrated our first anniversary of independence,” Firestone told Deputy Fire Chief Tom Franklin. “This celebration has continued every year since. It is part of America.
“On July Fourth when someone sets up a firework it goes right back to 1776 and it celebrates who we are.”
However, Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno, whose district includes part of Santa Maria, which allows the sale of “safe and sane” fireworks, said he doesn’t believe people living in rural areas with a high fire danger, such as Firestone, should be allowed to use any type of firework.
“I live in the City of Santa Maria and I’m going to stand out in front of my house with my sparkler,” Centeno said as he waved his hand around as if he had a sparkler.
Explosive fireworks, ones that shoot into the air or explode on the ground, have been illegal in the county for years. For whatever reason, Iskow said fire officials assumed the “safe and sane” kind were also illegal.
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the board’s chair, said he too believed this to be the case and is now glad to have a clear law for residents to look to.
“We have to be very mindful and proactive,” he said. “We can’t say one thing and lead the public to believe our laws are such and such and let that be something else.”
Iskow admitted he and other fire officials were wrong, but said that doesn’t diminish the dangerous nature of the fireworks. In fact, he said people are more apt to be negligent while handling the “safe and sane” kind than the explosive ones because of a misconception that they aren’t as dangerous.
Not only can the “safe and sane” fireworks cause personal harm, Iskow said in a “super combustible” county like Santa Barbara, they can, and often do, cause deadly fires.
“We know they cause major injuries every year as well as property damage and fires,” Iskow said. “We felt the small gain some civic groups and agencies get by the profits of sale of these fireworks are not wroth the risk of inuring one child or several children or the land and homes of our residents.”
During July Fourth celebrations, Iskow said the number of fires in the county doubles.
Under the new law, he said the penalty for possessing, selling or setting off any sort of fireworks within the unincorporated county ranges from a fine to jail time.
Given the high level of fire danger, Carbajal said he’d rather be safe than sorry.
“I would rather air on the side of caution and that’s why I voted for this ordinance,” he said. “Nothing precludes and accident.”
While some may not consider a sparkler to be particularly dangerous, Iskow said under the current dry conditions, one spark is enough to cause a catastrophic fire. For example, a spark from a metal grinder started the Zaca Fire, which charred more than 240,000 acres and took two months to contain.
“To allow the sale of fireworks in this environment is not safe and sane,” Iskow said.

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