Image: Spectators line the National Mall from the U.S. Capital
Shawn Thew  /  AFP / Getty Images file
Fourth of July fireworks explode in the sky behind the Washington Monument in the nation’s capital.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 6/30/2008 8:44:15 AM ET 2008-06-30T12:44:15

It was eerily quiet at Aaron Waugh’s fireworks stand in Princeton, W.Va.

“Pretty slow, pretty slow,” he concluded. “More people need to come in.”

The solitude at Rocket World, which opened last week, is being replicated at fireworks shops and seasonal stands across the country. Just a few days before the Fourth of July weekend, fireworks sales are down dramatically.

It’s a double blast. Authorities scared of setting off wildfires in drought conditions have imposed new bans on fireworks displays across a swath of the West and the Southwest. At the same time, a massive explosion at fireworks factories in China created a global shortage that has driven prices beyond the means not only of many backyard revelers but even of many local governments, forcing them to cancel municipal celebrations.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pleaded with residents this week not to buy or use fireworks in California, where wildfires sparked by lightning are burning up hundreds of thousands of acres in the northern part of the state.

“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,” Schwarzenegger said.

What goes up must come down
Numerous municipalities across California and other states responded to the threat by banning fireworks displays.

“Even if someone takes a legal firework and throws it up in the sky, that’s now an illegal firework,” said Sean Collins, a spokesman for the Kern County Fire Department, in the Bakersfield area.

What goes up — like fireworks — must come down, and authorities can’t take a chance that that will be in tinder-dry forests or brushlands.

“Those that go up in the air and fall away from where people are are the ones that traditionally give us the problem,” said Judge Dan Gattis, chief executive of Williamson County, Texas, in the central part of the state, which has set a $500 fine for using fireworks this summer.

Interactive: The inner workings of fireworks

Fires in many counties in eastern North Carolina led authorities to include holiday fireworks in their bans on outdoor burning. Similar bans have been declared in parts of Oregon, Idaho and Utah.

“Something benign as a sparkler ... can send sparks off into the grass,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Land Management, which banned fireworks in all of the nearly 12 million acres of public lands managed by the agency. “All it takes is a breeze, and then you’ve got a wildfire.”

Hundreds of cities priced out of market
But even if you live in a part of the country where fireworks remain legal, you could be disappointed this week.

In February, an explosion in the port city of Sanshui in southern China destroyed 20 fireworks warehouses. It was the worst of a series of safety problems at Chinese facilities in the past year. In response, China, which supplies 90 percent of the world’s cherry bombs and sparklers, shut down most exports.

“At present, China’s fireworks export is experiencing some unprecedented difficulties,” the Chinese pyrotechnic trade group said.

Coupled with the dollar’s weakness against the yuan, the Chinese currency, the shortage drove up the cost of fireworks nearly 20 percent across the board, making them a luxury many Americans and governments can’t afford in tight economic times.

“Fireworks company owners are at a loss as they have no control over the severe price increases nor the lack of shipping coming from China,” the National Fireworks Association said in a statement. “There is no indication when or if this situation will get better.”

Art Rozzi, of Rozzi Fireworks in Cincinnati, home to the annual Riverfest July 4 celebration, estimated that available supplies this year have plummeted by 40 percent.

“We’ve always imported some of the best stuff in the world to showcase at Riverfest and our other shows,” Rozzi said. “And we’re worried that we won’t get everything we want.”

Charlie Wald, a third-generation pyrotechnician at Wald & Co. in Greenwood, Mo., said he had to pay almost double for his crates this year, calling the pressure “the worst anybody in the industry has ever seen.”

“There was a lot of shortage on some companies that didn’t get their product in,” Wald said. “They’re more than likely going to have to pinch and choose what fireworks displays they can shoot and which they can’t.”

Local towns close down the show
As a result, cities and towns that plan all year for their annual Fourth of July celebrations couldn’t get enough shipments, and others concluded that it’s just not worth it.

Officials in Chula Vista, Calif., called off their Fourth of July fireworks show not because of the wildfire risk but because they couldn’t afford the estimated $40,000 cost, said Liz Pursell, a spokeswoman for the city. And Chula Vista is by no means alone.

Matt Sutcliff, CEO of Premier Pyrotechnics in Richland, Mo., said the company, one of the nation’s biggest fireworks vendors, had to reject orders from more than 700 small towns and cities. The company lost 4,800 cases of fireworks in the Chinese explosions, and there wasn’t enough time to resupply by July 4.

Bans and rising prices are especially painful for the thousands of schools, churches and nonprofit groups that rely on seasonal fireworks sales to fund their budgets.

After Schwarzenegger urged Californians to boycott fireworks, “my reaction was great — what do we do now?” said the Rev. Victor Vasquez, pastor of Olive Drive Church in Bakersfield.

It’s not small change. City officials estimated that nonprofit groups in Garden Grove, Calif., alone would normally make $1.2 million during just four days of fireworks sales.

Tim Jacobson, president of Garden Grove’s Pony Baseball league, said he feared for the sales that funded his 300-member Little League for decades.

“Everything we do, from the scoreboards to the fences, it’s all from fireworks money,” Jacobson said.

Victory Life Center, a small Pentecostal congregation in Westfield, Ind., had hoped July 4 fireworks sales would help pay for a new church building.

The church invested $8,000 in supplies and rent for a shop. But with each sign and banner that went up came a citation from the city to cease and desist.

“Activities and outreach — it takes money. And that was the whole intent and purpose, not greed, just to impact our community,” said the Rev. Randy Adams, the church’s pastor. “It’s going to be devastating if we’re not able to sell and recoup at least our expenses.”

But Jerry Beyersdorff, CEO of the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce in Watsonville, Calif., said authorities were in a no-win situation.

“That’s a significant amount of money that the nonprofits will be forfeiting if there’s no fireworks sale,” he said.

“On the other hand, you can’t equate $5,000 [a nonprofit] would make with somebody’s house or their animals.”

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Video: Being safe with fireworks

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