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Have A Blast


Posted on May 30


As America celebrates its 228th birthday this Fourth of July, we take a look at the big business of fireworks in the Sacramento region. Plus, we offer a guide to viewing the fireworks that fly through the air at public July 4 events.

Let the Sparks Fly

Not every corner of the Golden State allows fireworks to be sold and set off, but 262 jurisdictions do, contributing to what the American Pyrotechnics Association estimates as a $517 million U.S. consumer market segment. In Sacramento County, the “open” cities are Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Folsom, Galt, Isleton, Rancho Cordova and Sacramento, in addition to unincorporated areas. The cities in Placer County that give the thumbs up to state-approved fireworks are Lincoln , Rocklin and Roseville . Unincorporated portions of Yolo County also are open, as are the cities of Winters and Woodland . In El Dorado County , consumer fireworks are banned.

Where they're legal, the competition for market share is hotter than the business end of a lit California Candle. In the three-county area of Sacramento, Placer and Yolo, about 520 stands this July will be run by volunteers, and of that total, roughly 300 will carry the Red Devil, Freedom and TNT banners.

“We're the leader by far. We've been here for 50 years,” says Castilone, who has been part of the company for all but 17 of those. “We have the customer service and brand recognition. We have a strong level of customer support from both a product sales standpoint, a community relations standpoint, a safety and education standpoint and on a marketing standpoint. This company not only provides nonprofits with the product and means to sell, but the whole support mechanism and an entire company at their disposal to promote sales.”

Talk to the other guys and you'll get a similar spiel, of course—lest we forget that Phantom and TNT are “fierce competitors,” using Hass' words.

“There's just so many fireworks dollars in a community, and if you have 100 organizations, then you split it 100 ways,” Hass explains. “We try to separate where Phantom booths are located, but we'll be next to a Red Devil and be happy.”

There is no chance of that happening in Galt. For the second consecutive year, not a single Phantom stand will be run in the entire city. The fact that TNT has the Galt fireworks market cornered isn't the only peculiarity in this city of 20,000 people: Not only is each of the city's seven stands a Red Devil, but they are all located in the same place, adjacent to the Galt Sports Complex, in the parking lot north of the Burger King on Fairway Drive . It's a bizarre sight.

“In 2000, the city council designated all booths on city property to be together,” says Sue Cory, Galt's deputy city clerk. The concept was endorsed by the fire chief for safety reasons and, as Cory claims, fireworks sold in one place removes a competitive advantage. Needless to say, Hass would like nothing better than to help give one of Galt's nonprofits a competitive advantage.

“When you have one Phantom in that group, that's a lucky organization,” says Hass.

Do the math and you'll understand why competition is so tough. The average fireworks purchaser spends between $35 and $55, according to combined ranges from TNT and Phantom. Those buying with a credit card spend an average of $75, according to Castilone, whose company introduced payment by plastic in California five years ago.

Fireworks are allowed to be sold in California from noon June 28 to 10 p.m. July 5, but local ordinances and the Greater Sacramento Area Fireworks Safety Task Force (made up of representatives from fire, police, the district attorney's office and the fireworks industry) prohibit sales on July 5.

“It's like buying a Christmas tree the day after Christmas,” Revell reasons. Plus, because nearly three-quarters of all fireworks are purchased on Independence Day itself, according to both TNT and Phantom, the return on investment for the volunteer work force of the nonprofits would be negligible at best on July 5.

That said, consumers who wait until the Fourth of July run the risk of the “hottest” fireworks being sold out. Many booths last year ran out of TNT's 14-inch-high All American and barrel-shaped TNT Fountain early; same with Phantom's popular Golden Gate Spectacular and long-lasting Apache Firedance. This year's buying mania promises to be built around TNT's brand new 500-gram Mighty Max fountain and the aforementioned Yellow Stars fountain, and the debut of Phantom's New York Harbor finale, which produces a spectacular four-and-a-half minute display.

“If there's a special piece you simply must have, don't procrastinate,” Hass warns.

Political Fireworks

Ninety-five percent of fireworks-related injuries and 98 percent of property loss are due to illegal fireworks, says Captain Patrick Ellis of Sacramento Metro Fire, citing recent averages within Sacramento Metro's jurisdiction and statistics issued by the California fire marshal's office. “Last year, there were three working-structure fires on the Fourth, and all three were a result of illegal fireworks.”

More than 400 municipalities in California have banned fireworks altogether, rejecting arguments, among others, that a ban is an erosion of the same freedoms America celebrates on Independence Day.

Davis is the largest city in the Sacramento region that prohibits the sale and use of all fireworks. The argument has been made that a ban on fireworks reduces the number of fires and injuries. But throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water may not be the wisest move, according to some local fire authorities.

“Sacramento Metro's past experience is, if we outlaw fireworks, there would still be that component of people who get illegally purchased fireworks and Safe & Sane fireworks bought elsewhere,” Ellis explains. “The stance our fire marshal and fire chief take is, it's not Safe & Sane fireworks that are the problem.”

TNT, Phantom and other distributors of state-approved fireworks realize that if they don't help seriously curb the use of illegal fireworks in California, the state's consumer market could go up in smoke. That's why the industry is lockstep with the legal system and fire agencies on educating the public of the consequences of handling illegal fireworks. Efforts include the three-year-old Private Eyes campaign, which solicits the public's help in identifying violators and provides a toll-free telephone number for people to report alleged violations. The effort is linked to the Task Force's “Zero Tolerance” Illegal Fireworks Enforcement Program initiated eight years ago. “We'll confiscate, prosecute and send lawbreakers to jail,” says Ellis. “We're playing hardball now.”

Education campaigns directed at the rest of us are being credited for safer and saner celebrations with fireworks. Last year, the American Pyrotechnics Association reported that fireworks-related injuries had fallen to the lowest levels since the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission started promulgating the current federal standards for consumer fireworks in 1976.

Escape to Battle Mountain

TNT and Phantom enjoy a duopoly in the region, but that only applies to state-approved Safe & Sane fireworks. For those who clamor for more oomph from their pyrotechnics and don't mind the monotonous drive, there's a remote slice of firework heaven called Battle Mountain, Nev.

In this sleepy desert town of fewer than 3,000 people, not including jackrabbits and transient Interstate-80 motorists, sits a pair of stores that legally sell the fireworks that California can't—and year-round.

You want firecrackers? How about 16,000 of those little beauties on a single string? Feel like making your own display that looks more public than private? The well-stocked Rollercoaster Fireworks outlet and an enterprising Shell station food mart have artillery shells, skyrockets and repeating aerial displays. The favorite place to light these off is a gravel pit, off State Road 35, six miles north of town. Most of the people you'll see there are Northern Californians, says Steve Cassorla, who owns the Rollercoaster store and a signature brand of premium firecrackers with his brother Earl.

“We're fireworks people for fireworks people. Safe & Sane is a great product, but when showbiz is your biz, that's where we come in,” says Earl Cassorla, whose company is recognized as the first to add titanium to firecrackers, a chemical that produces a flashier flash and a bangier bang.

Battle Mountain proves that a mere three and a half hours beyond the California border exists a world where fireworks rocket, rotate and explode. It's when these worlds—or rather, states—collide that sparks can fly.

“We understand that non-Safe & Sane fireworks come across state lines,” says Captain Patrick Ellis of Sacramento Metro Fire. “There is a level of frustration.”

Ellis hesitates to point fingers in the direction of northern Nevada. “We don't have a huge problem with Battle Mountain because fireworks bought there are used in open areas,” he explains. However, the purchase of what Ellis calls “underground fireworks” is a problem.

A growing portion of these fireworks is sold to California residents on the Internet. Delivery of them is a violation of the state's Health and Safety Code if the purchaser is without an import/export license.

Public Spectacles

Auburn

Gold Country Fairgrounds

1–9 p.m. live music, children's activities

9:30 p.m. fireworks

(530) 885-5616

Citrus Heights

Sunrise Mall

1–9 p.m. pony rides, petting zoo, live music

9:30 p.m. fireworks

(916) 726-6767

Davis

Community Park

9:30 p.m. fireworks

(530) 757-5626

Elk Grove

“Salute to the Red, White and Blue”

Elk Grove Park

3–10:30 p.m. family events

9:30 p.m. fireworks

(916) 691-3760

Folsom

Folsom City Park

7 p.m. Folsom Pro Rodeo

9:30 p.m. fireworks

(916) 985-5555

Placerville

“4th of July Family Blast”

El Dorado County Fairgrounds

4 p.m. Games, crafts, live music

10 p.m. fireworks

(530) 621-5860

Rancho Cordova

Hagan Community Park

10 a.m. family events, including parade along Coloma Road

9:30 p.m. fireworks

(916) 361-8700

Roseville

Placer County Fairgrounds

10 a.m. parade starts nearby at Vernon Street and Douglas Boulevard

9:30 p.m. fireworks

(916) 786-2023

Sacramento

Cal Expo

6 p.m. gates open

9:30 p.m. fireworks

(916) 263-3000

West Sacramento

Raley's “Celebrate America”

7:30 p.m. family events, including performance by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra

9:30 p.m. fireworks

(800) 225-2277

Many of these public displays are the grand finale of a larger, oftentimes all-day event, so some charge admission. But if you don't mind missing out on gunny sack races, carnival rides, horseshoe tournaments and other symbols of Americana that several of the more ambitious community events offer, here's a simple tip on how to catch the fireworks for free: Look up.

You'll sacrifice hearing a beautifully conducted rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever” by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra or seeing some ground displays, but the same aerial fireworks the paying patrons of Raley's “Celebrate America” will see on the Fourth of July can be yours without charge. For the annual Raley Field event, a prime vantage point is on the west side of the Embassy Suites Hotel. Get there an hour before dusk if you want any chance at a bench. Otherwise, find a spot behind the rail that overlooks the river. The only gamble here is if there's a southern wind; your view of a few of the bursts might be obstructed by Tower Bridge.

The same scenario applies when the Sacramento River Cats offer a fireworks promotion, although the display isn't as grand as with “Celebrate America.” On the River Cats home schedule this month, there are three fireworks promotions, including one on July 3, when the defending Pacific Coast League champions host the Tucson Sidewinders.

A dazzling show will be staged each night of the annual Folsom Pro Rodeo July 1–4 at Folsom City Park, but only on the Fourth will there be aerials. On the other nights, there will be an in-arena fireworks extravaganza. So, if you don't have a hankering for calf roping and bull riding, stake out a prime vantage point just after dusk in Historic Folsom. The truss bridge is an awesome spot.

For the show above expansive Cal Expo on the Fourth, any unobstructed plot not too close and not too far will do just fine.

In all cases, the best view of public fireworks displays is from a quarter of a mile or more away. It's also safer, as some revelers learned two years ago outside Raley Field. During the grand finale of “Celebrate America,” a couple of shells broke a little low and sparks blew into the dry brush and grass along the riverbank near where the fireworks were ignited. Before West Sacramento's bravest arrived on the scene, a handful of small fires had broken out, including one that scorched the steel foundation of Tower Bridge.

It just goes to show that leaving fireworks to the professionals doesn't guarantee a show free of oops and flaws amid the oohs and ahs. “Anytime you're dealing with explosives and gunpowder, there is risk,” says Captain Patrick Ellis, Sacramento Metro Fire.

Know your shells: a guide to what's in the sky

CHRYSANTHEMUM—Spherical pattern of stars that leave a visible trail. Effect is somewhat suggestive of the flower

MAROON—Loud bang and flash

PALM—Firework charges travel up and out, and then explode like a palm tree

PISTIL—Like the chrysanthemum but with a core that is a different color from the outer stars

RING SHELL—Explodes to produce a symmetrical ring of stars

ROUND SHELL—Explodes in spherical shape

ROUNDEL—Circle of stars that burst one after another

SERPENTINE—Lots of small, random trails of fireworks

WILLOW—Stars that fall in the shape of willow branches and might stay visible until they hit the ground

 
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Published: Sunday, April 13, 2014