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Drought threatens some July 4 fireworks

The possibility of fire prompts Pinellas and state officials to consider canceling traditional events.

By ERIC STIRGUS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2000


As scorching heat and rainless skies continue, fire department officials in several Pinellas County cities are considering canceling Fourth of July fireworks shows.

Dunedin City Manager John Lawrence said Thursday that the city probably will not host its annual fireworks display at Honeymoon Island State Recreation Area. Since it is a state park, the state makes the final decision on whether a fireworks show can be held.

But Lawrence said current conditions make a fireworks show there a bad idea.

"It's probably like a tinderbox out there right now," he said.

Largo Fire Chief E. Caroll Williams said he plans to talk to fire chiefs across the county and discuss whether a countywide ban on fireworks sales and shows might be in order. Though the holiday is about six weeks away, Williams said fireworks vendors will soon be in town and the county needs to decide whether fireworks should be sold at all.

Pinellas County is fertile ground for a major wildfire, according to the state Division of Forestry's drought index. On a scale of 0 to 800, with desert conditions an 800, Pinellas County has a drought index of 748.

"The conditions are just right to have a big event and we need to do everything we can to prevent this from happening," Williams said.

As for the city's show at Largo Central Park, Largo will decide by next Friday whether to continue with its plans, said Recreation and Parks spokesman Doug Matthews. The city has budgeted $20,000 for its fireworks show and has designs for fliers and posters that promote the show. Matthews said the city has begun to brainstorm about alternative plans if the show is canceled.

Randy Pritchard, who has been hired to put together fireworks shows for Largo, Tarpon Springs, St. Petersburg and Tampa, met Thursday with Largo officials to discuss their options. Pritchard, owner and president of Great Shows Fireworks of Oldsmar, said he is not concerned about fireworks displays in St. Petersburg and Tampa because those are over water.

The other shows would be done over grassy areas, which does give Pritchard and others some cause for concern.

"I'm hopeful the rainy season comes before July," said Tarpon Springs Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Brown.

Some other Pinellas communities are waiting for Gov. Jeb Bush to decide whether the fireworks shows and sales will be banned. In 1998, Gov. Lawton Chiles banned the sale of fireworks but allowed shows held by local governments because of drought conditions. Bush ordered a ban on outdoor burning, except for backyard grilling. He stopped short of banning fireworks.

On Tuesday, Polk County commissioners voted unanimously to ban fireworks -- just before the Memorial Day holiday -- until further notice. Violations carry a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail.

Of the other counties in West Central Florida, the state's driest area, only Pasco has an outright burning and fireworks ban. The ban, enacted last month, carries a penalty similar to Polk's.

An emergency drought ordinance adopted in March for unincorporated Hernando County prohibits setting off fireworks without permission from state or local fire authorities.

Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez Thursday issued a countywide ban on fireworks and sparklers because of the wildfire threat. The ban doesn't affect commercial operators, such as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.

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