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Wildfire Fears, Sluggish Economy Cancel Fireworks Shows Across the Country

Those seeking the oohs and aahs of traditional Fourth of July fireworks could be sadly disappointed this year: Public displays and sales of boxed firecrackers are being canceled or scaled back across the nation, victims of a sluggish economy, wildfire fears and product shortages caused by a warehouse fire in China.

With Northern California already battling a string of wildfires, fire officials in Scotts Valley, south of San Jose, concluded that going ahead with the annual show would send the wrong message when residents have been asked to refrain from setting off even tiny sparklers in their backyards.

Fire Chief Mike McMurry, who has worked in Scotts Valley for 31 years, could not recall another time when dry weather snuffed out the show. "It's all about the severity of the conditions right now," he said.

Aside from the fire danger, local governments are also short of money because of the slumping economy. Fireworks supplies are petering out, too, because China is running short of ports from which to ship the dangerous cargoes abroad.

In Texas, four parched counties obtained emergency declarations prohibiting the sale of personal fireworks. In Massachusetts, several towns said fewer donations from corporate sponsors made it too expensive to mount local celebrations.

The average aerial display lasts about 15 minutes and costs $10,000. Larger cities spend about $100,000 for bigger shows.

The vast majority of Independence Day blazes are sparked by amateurs igniting illegal fireworks such as Roman candles and M80s. Officials in many drought-stricken areas of the West and Southeast decided the risk was too great this year to put fireworks in the hands of anyone but professionals.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has urged residents not to buy fireworks from roadside stands and asked local governments to consider banning their sale.

The Kiwanis Club of Mariposa, Calif., a town about 70 miles northwest of Fresno, canceled its fireworks show because firefighters were using the county fairgrounds as a staging area to contain a blaze that has blackened more than 2,700 acres. Last month, the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park in Valencia, Calif., canceled its nightly fireworks shows for the entire summer.

The conditions also affect nonprofit groups that sell fireworks to raise money.

In Lake County, 80 miles north of San Francisco, an organization that helps beauty pageant contestants buy gowns and travel to competitions decided to heed the governor's plea not to sell fireworks. But doing so meant giving up $10,000 — more than 75 percent of the group's yearly budget.

"I look outside and there's so much smoke I can't even see across the lake," said Trish Combs, executive director of the Miss Lake County Scholarship Organization. "It's a good reminder that we made the right decision for the community. But this is a real tough situation for us."

The city councils of Watsonville and Gilroy, Calif., which are in wildfire-prone Santa Cruz County, both considered outlawing consumer fireworks sales for the year.

Watsonville officials unanimously approved a ban, but Gilroy council members rejected the measure after a heated meeting that pitted the demands of youth football teams, cheerleaders and other groups with permits to sell fireworks against the concerns of fearful homeowners.

Rather than outlawing all fireworks, officials in Bexar County, Texas, have established 10 "safe zones" where the public will be allowed to light fireworks under the watch of volunteer firefighters.

Financial constraints have been more of a factor than fire in some places where organizers have called off their civic displays. For example, Cocoa Beach, Fla., and Chula Vista, Calif., decided they couldn't afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a form of entertainment that would be over in a flash.

"Local businesses foot the bill," said Charles Billias, city manager in Cocoa Beach. "The money isn't there." The city also had trouble securing a barge from which to launch fireworks and getting security clearance to take fireworks onto it.

The price of commercial fireworks shot up this year because of an explosion in China's port of Sanshui that destroyed 20 fireworks warehouses and caused Chinese officials to stop shipping fireworks out of the port because of safety concerns.

That left only the smaller port of Beihai open for shipment of professional-grade fireworks, making it harder for American vendors to obtain shipments from the nation that supplies the United States with 80 percent of its professional and 98 percent of its consumer fireworks.

Some shows that were booked well in advance may be shorter than usual and have fewer pyrotechnic effects. But to avoid cancellations, fireworks companies dug into their inventories and paid more money to get products from other suppliers.

In Greenville, S.C., Fire Marshall Larry Godfrey said the poor economy may have a silver lining when it comes to fire prevention: Many residents feeling the financial squeeze of rising gas prices are buying fewer fireworks and will probably attend public displays rather than putting on their own.

"People just don't have the money to do it, I think," Godfrey said. "But the larger shows are going on and they are supervised."

Struggles for the $930 million fireworks industry won't end on July 4 because security concerns surrounding the Olympics in Beijing will create an even bigger shipping problem.

The port of Shanghai, which handles consumer fireworks, shut down Monday through at least the end of August to ensure security for the Olympics, which begin Aug. 8.

Cities and private groups that didn't have to pay more for upcoming Fourth of July shows can expect price increases, said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.

"It's going to put a crunch on our New Year's and Christmas season," Heckman said.