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Fireworks sellers ready; governor says no

Fireworks are synonymous with the Fourth of July.

Twenty-five groups will be selling "safe and sane" fireworks in Merced over a nine-day period and for many of them it's their major fundraiser of the year.

Last year, there were 22 fireworks booths in the city of Merced, said Merced fire Division Chief Bryan Donnelly. Most of the groups are nonprofits but some private individuals, in business before the city's regulatory ordinance was enacted five years ago, can still sell fireworks.

"People are very conscientious with what they're dealing with," Donnelly said. "They try real hard to do it right."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday asked Californians to avoid buying Fourth of July fireworks in the wake of hundreds of fires throughout the state and unusually dry conditions this summer.

Locally, firefighters do a thorough inspection before the fireworks booths are allowed to open and inspect the booths daily. Eleven general requirements are outlined and those selling fireworks must attend training classes.

Tamara Edwards-Jiminez runs the Golden Valley High School Band Boosters booth at 18th and G streets. With Golden Valley invited to the Rose Bowl Parade, Jiminez said the local group is "really counting on" doing well at their fireworks booth.

About 20 people a day help in the booths, with five shifts having a minimum of three people. Golden Valley students sold pre-sale fireworks tickets in $10 and $20 denominations and made between $8,000 and $10,000, Jiminez said.

Scott McKee runs the Merced Youth Soccer Association fireworks booth at 3550 N. G St. in the Raley's Shopping Center. His group expects to make $6,000 to $8,000 from fireworks sales. Thirty-two adults volunteer in the youth soccer fireworks booth and many people support the group each year through purchases.

"This is pretty much our only fundraiser," McKee said. "It's big for us. It's our entire budget for our competitive soccer team, Merced United Freedom."

Sheila Garcia, who runs the fireworks booth for Calvary Assembly of God at 1729 W. Highway 140, said this is the fourth year the church has sold fireworks. Money raised is used for church projects and to help needy families.

"It's a lot of hard work but it can be fun, too," Garcia said. "It's been good for us." Twenty volunteers staff the church booth.

Donnelly, who heads the department's Fire Prevention Bureau, said the city follows state fire marshal regulations that govern "safe and sane" fireworks. Basically these pyrotechnics aren't supposed to explode or leave the ground. It's illegal to modify them or throw them.

Last year, 40 pounds of illegal fireworks were confiscated in the city. There were 150 fireworks-related calls to 911 last July 4, and 54 fire incidents blamed on fireworks, including numerous grass fires, one building fire and an auto fire, Donnelly said.

Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten wants to make sure people follow the rules. A major concern is the number of dry lots and vacant houses in Merced.

"If you use common sense, you're OK," Mitten said. "We want everybody to be safe."

Normally, about 2,000 weed abatement notices are sent out each spring. This year, however, 5,000 notices were mailed out.

All forms of fireworks are illegal in unincorporated Merced County. Fire Marshal Pat Wright said it's hard to catch people using fireworks in the county, but the devices can be seized and citations issued.

Schwarzenegger issued the unique request during a press conference in Big Sur, near the Basin Complex fire where 19,100 acres have already burned.

"I know that the people that are selling all this stuff are going to go crazy now when I say this, but don't buy any of the fireworks," Schwarzenegger said. "Don't go out and do fireworks this year.

"You would help the fire department and the state and law enforcement and everyone a tremendous amount, if you want to contribute and make sure that those fires go away and we don't have more fires coming up," Schwarzenegger continued. "So be careful. Don't buy the fireworks, don't go out and play with fireworks, because it's just too dry and too dangerous to do those things."

Fireworks can be sold in Merced between Saturday and July 6. Fireworks booths can be operated between noon and midnight Saturday; 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through July 2; 6 a.m. to midnight July 3-5 and from 6 a.m. to noon on July 6.

All unsold stock of fireworks must be returned to the wholesaler before July 15. It's illegal to use or handle fireworks while under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. Use of safe and sane fireworks within 50 feet of a fireworks stand is prohibited. No one under the age of 18 can sell fireworks.

Firefighters advise people to enjoy fireworks from a safe distance, use fireworks outdoors in clear areas away from houses, weeds or dry brush or buildings, light fireworks carefully and then move away quickly. Small children should be carefully supervised around fireworks.

Illegal and dangerous fireworks include cherry bombs, bottle rockets, firecrackers, M-80s, Roman candles or any altered safe-sane fireworks.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or