After years of muted July 4ths, more pyrotechnics in the works

In a surge of patriotism, towns throw costs to the wind.

In Huntington Beach, Calif., the fireworks are moving to the beach - and within reach of neighboring communities - for the first time in 30 years. In Springfield, Mass., a local newspaper has raised $80,000 for a display over the skyline this weekend, bringing new sparks to the town's bleak fiscal situation. And in Morro Bay, Calif., the municipal fireworks show will go on despite moves by some coastal officials to require permits to protect the western snowy plover.

Despite terrorism threats, sobering events in Iraq, and a host of concerns at home, this year's July Fourth celebrations are expected to be the largest in years. Though public coffers are pinched, private sponsors have filled the void, sometimes pounding the pavement for donations.

There's pent-up demand for a sizzling show. Local officials and firework-industry analysts say that after years of curtailed activity due to terrorism concerns, Americans are ready to rediscover revelry - rowdiness, noise, and all.

"This is my year," says Henrietta Gragg, a Missouri tourist visiting California and trying to choose a venue for Sunday's fireworks. The grandmother of five hasn't seen a parade or fireworks since her husband died in 1998. But after driving her small trailer across several states for the first time in a decade, she says she will park, unfold a metal chair, sit in her truck bed, and reminisce on celebrations going back to childhood. "When I was young, my sisters and I sat in a circle and watched the fireworks reflect off each other's faces. Every time I see fireworks, I think back to those days."

Instability abroad, along with the introspection of this year's World War II commemorations, have combined to pressure local legislators to let their communities blow off some steam with pyrotechnics, bands, parades, and all the rest.

"People are thinking a lot more about the price of freedom," says Frank VanderSloot, president of Melaleuca, a company that sponsors one of the country's largest fireworks displays in Idaho Falls, Idaho - an event that triples the town's population of 50,000 for one night each year.

Security concerns have transformed - and made more costly - the logistical drill. Most towns now require more permits and regulations, which means more personnel. Fireworks firms pay more for insurance, and the cost is passed on to communities.

"Not only have insurance costs gone up, but 9/11 has produced a kind of competition between fireworks companies," says Robert Yale, cofounder of Bay Fireworks, which puts on about 600 shows each year. "That has really added significant costs."

Those costs hit small towns especially hard. Auburn, Mass., police have refused to issue a fireworks permit because they can't provide sufficient crowd safety, Farmington Hills, Mich., can't fund fire and special services. Idaho Falls' massive show - billed as the largest west of the Mississippi - is funded solely by Melaleuca. "We could never afford the kind of show we get with our own funds," says city councilman Bill Shurtleff.

In California, several beach communities report rising costs and sinking donations - among them Pismo Beach, Cayucos and Cambria. But many are moving forward because residents are tired of retrenchment and caution. "I've seen several communities where they have had to lay off police and other municipal workers, but when it has come time to cut fireworks, they say: 'How dare you?'" says Yale, who reports a soaring demand for his products. "They feel fireworks are the great symbol of what it means to be an American."

That's behind Huntington Beach's decision to move its show from a high school to the public beach, despite decades of rowdiness at beach events.

"Residents here simply felt that it was time to create a family event," says city council spokeswoman Laurie Payne. The city is also sponsoring a parade with Jerry Mathers (of "Leave it to Beaver") and gymnast Cathy Rigby. Local radio stations will simulcast music.

"I think it's great if the people here can finally learn how to behave," says Costa Mesa resident Dennis Friedrich.

But given residents' habits of turning on police - overturning cars, setting fires, and starting fights - his mother isn't so sure it's a good idea. "This town has more safety issues than Iraq," says Mercedes Friedrich.

That sentiment is bringing preventive action and safety warnings from national entities such as the National Council on Fireworks Safety (NCFS). "The rates of injuries due to fireworks and fireworks shows have been decreasing steadily for 20 years," says Ann Crampton, spokeswoman for the NCFS. "We attribute that to safer fireworks, better education, and better willingness ... to use common sense."

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