Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fireworks, California Style

Where I grew up, my town put on a spectacular independence day fireworks show every year on the football field at the local high school. My neighbors and my family also lit Roman candles, sparklers, firecrackers, and who knows what else on our block. It got so noisy that one neighbor had to sedate her skittish dog each year.

Here in Northern California, though, it's a different story. The fourth of July falls at the worst time of year for fireworks: the dry season and the foggy season (yes, these two seasons co-exist; the cold marine fog creeps in along the coast all summer long, pulled by the heat of the Central Valley to the east, but the rains generally don't fall from June through September).

Years ago, a friend and I hiked to the top of a hill with a view of downtown San Francisco, wrapped in thick coats against the fog, to watch the fireworks show. Undeterred by the weather, the city shot the fireworks into the fog. Although I heard the booms when they were lit, all I could see were a few pale colors reflected in the overcast sky. Fun.

Putting on your own fireworks show with store-bought ("consumer") fireworks is not an option for most people here. It's illegal to set off your own fireworks in many Bay Area cities (including all of San Francisco and Marin counties), because of the dry-season fire danger and the risk of personal injuries.

The bottom line is that safety laws, combined with the often fog-shrouded coastal fireworks shows, mean that the Fourth of July celebration out here is, well, a dud.
Yes, fireworks are dangerous; the tips of sparklers get as hot as 1200 degrees Fahrenheit (!), according to the National Fire Protection Association. Because children are most likely to be injured by store-bought fireworks, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is opposed to all consumer fireworks.

The few local towns here that do permit consumer fireworks only allow "safe and sane" fireworks (in general, fireworks that are not shot into the air). In these towns, nonprofit groups often sell consumer fireworks as a fundraiser, providing much-needed funding in a time of budget cuts. Many of the groups are raising funds for charities that benefit children (hoping, of course, that children don't light their wares). 

Are consumer fireworks more fun than dangerous, or more dangerous than fun?  This issue raises perhaps the most fundamental question facing today's parents: should we let our kids do what we did?

Most years we've just thrown up our hands and skipped the whole fireworks thing. This year, though, we drove our fireworks-deprived kids to a rural town to watch a fireworks show.

Fortunately, the day was fog-free, and it stayed clear as it got dark. The kids squealed with delight when the first firework went up and lit up the sky with a flower shape. They had never seen a live show before, and for the next half-hour, they ooohed and ahhhed their way through the display.

It was more subdued than the celebrations I remember from my childhood, but it was good to give them something to watch.