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Friday, Jul 05 2013 11:00 PM

Every July 4th, celebrants risk life and limb

By The Bakersfield Californian

It's become a common aftermath of our Independence Day celebrations: Injury and arrest. The midsummer holiday that we have set aside to honor America by remembering Francis Scott Key's "bombs bursting in air" all too often results in eardrums bursting in heads, dogs bursting through fences and assorted other problems not necessarily envisioned by the nation's esteemed founders.

Here's the Kern County tally from our most recent 4th of July celebration. On July 3-4, the Kern County Fire Department -- whose firefighters were paired up with Kern County Sheriff's deputies in two person teams-- received 1,314 calls on a fireworks hotline from members of the public reporting non-sanctioned explosives. Of those calls, 1,173 were addressed by Metropolitan Bakersfield task force teams and 141 were routed to fire stations around the county not serviced by the task force.

Illegal fireworks tend to be louder and more dangerous than the legal kind available in fireworks booths in the days leading up to the 4th. But even legal fireworks can cause injuries, especially if they are mishandled or modified, and anything with a burning fuse, legal or not, can become a fire hazard. Little wonder there's been growing sentiment for a local ban on personal, street-level fireworks. That would create a new challenge for charities, nonprofits, churches and other groups that host these fireworks booths as a way to raise funds, but ask any dog owner with a high-strung canine which side of the argument makes the most sense. That's what bake sales, car washes and entrepreneurial imagination are for.

Some who oppose the sale of legal personal fireworks say community fireworks shows, like the popular and spectacular show at Bakersfield College, are good alternatives -- and they're right. But even those events can be dangerous.

Look no further than the Kern County mountain town of Tehachapi, where an accident during a July 4 fireworks show caused minor injuries at Tehachapi Municipal Airport, which was the site of the show's staging area. One of the missiles failed to launch properly, shooting in a horizontal direction across the airport runway and igniting near a crowd of spectators. Four attendees suffered burn injuries, including one who was hit below her right eye.

An even scarier incident took place in Simi Valley, where at least 36 people were injured after a major malfunction sent pyrotechnics shooting into the crowd. Some 10,000 people were at a community park to watch the show when at least one missile prematurely exploded in a mortar, causing a chain reaction that tipped over other fireworks and launched them into the crowd.

It's an odd tradition we have here in America, this affection for fire, smoke and breathtaking, airborne color. In the hands of properly trained professionals who abide by strict procedures, fireworks shows are pretty safe, but even in those settings things can go awry. Personal fireworks are another story entirely. If Kern County were to ban them completely, we'd get over the loss pretty quickly. Like, immediately.

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