Officials urge extra caution in celebrating July Fourth in Merced County

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comJune 25, 2014 

The flutter and sparkle of Fourth of July fireworks carry a patriotic meaning for many, but in this very dry year they are also a symbol of dangerous possibilities for firefighters.

Fireworks will go on sale in Merced County at noon Saturday, and fire officials are warning the public to use particular caution because dry grasses cover large expanses of land.

“With our weed abatement program having been scaled back, I am worried this season,” said Tracy Staiger, Merced city fire inspector. “There’s lots of (property) that I would have cleaned up, standing there with tall, dead grass.”

For the past few years, Merced has pulled back on its weed abatement, citing lack of money to cut the grass and the lengthy process to get repayment from landowners. That could mean more overgrown vegetation in one of the driest years on record.

Since Independence Day falls on a Friday, Staiger said, firefighters likely will need to stay on the alert throughout the long weekend.

Though the possibility of fire might be greater, the demand for fireworks dubbed “Safe and Sane” by the state fire marshal remains high. The booths that sell them can be big moneymakers for nonprofit organizations.

There are 19 booths selling those pyrotechnics in Merced, seven in Los Banos and 17 in the parts of Merced County covered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Lance Eber, a coach for Merced United soccer, said the fireworks booth is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the program. The money made – $16,000 on average – helps players cover costs, buys whatever the team needs and goes to college scholarships, Eber said.

To try to quash the use of illegal fireworks, as well as the misuse of the Safe and sane fireworks, officials have set fines in the county at more than $1,000. In April, the city of Merced adopted a similar ordinance, pushing fines into quadruple digits. Los Banos has had such an ordinance on the books for a few years.

Fire officials recommend that users never light fireworks indoors, near dry grass or near flammable materials; never alter any fireworks or point them at someone; always keep a garden hose or fire extinguisher handy; and keep people a safe distance away before igniting fireworks.

If the firing site is particularly dry, wet the ground as protection against fire.

Soaking the spent pyrotechnics in a bucket of water for at least an hour before disposing of them is a good way to avoid setting a trash can on fire, officials said.

California has zero tolerance for the sale and use of illegal fireworks, which include skyrockets, bottle rockets, Roman candles, aerial shells, firecrackers and other types that explode, go into the air or move on the ground in an uncontrollable manner, fire officials said.

The rules for lighting pyrotechnics are stricter in Los Banos, where the Safe and Sane kind are allowed only between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. July 1-July 4.

“The use of illegal fireworks will not be tolerated and our officers will be conducting strict enforcement of these violations,” Cmdr. Jason Hedden, said in a news release. “We want people to have a good time, but not at the risk of getting hurt.”

The Merced County Board of Supervisors temporarily approved the use of fireworks last year and went forward with a long-term ordinance this year. Cal Fire officials said people planning to buy fireworks should check maps of the approved areas. The maps can be found at fire stations and fireworks booths.

Parts of the county fall under “state responsibility,” where all pyrotechnics are forbidden, even Safe and Sane fireworks. The potential for wildfires is considered greater in those areas. Parts of Snelling, the outskirts of Le Grand and areas along Interstate 5 south of Los Banos are included.

Merced County Fire Chief Nancy Koerperich said most homeowners in the areas of state responsibility know that fireworks are not allowed there. The problems come when people unfamiliar with the rule travel into the area to set off fireworks, on the banks of Lake McClure, for example.

“Be sure that you are not in the state lands, that could lead to confiscation,” she said. “You need to check those maps to make sure you’re in the appropriate location.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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