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Rains spark Hillsborough to lift ban on fireworks

The storms haven't swayed officials in Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus or Hernando counties to do the same.

By JOE HUMPHREY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


TAMPA -- A pair of thunderstorms and the prospect of more on the horizon prompted officials Friday to lift Hillsborough County's ban on the sale and use of fireworks.

Representatives from the county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City followed the recommendations of their fire chiefs and decided to end a ban they instituted June 2.

"We're in a pattern with summer rains now," said Chief Bill Nesmith of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. "I felt comfortable that we could go ahead."

A thunderstorm dumped more than 2 inches of rain on parts of the area Tuesday. Six days before that, the region saw its first substantial rainfall of the season when as much as 4 inches fell in some areas.

However, the storms haven't swayed officials in Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus or Hernando counties to lift fireworks bans, and the owners of fireworks businesses fired back in court.

Galaxy Fireworks of Tampa sued Pasco County on Friday, saying the ban deprives the owners of a right to operate a legal business. Galaxy owner Sharon Hunnewell said Hillsborough's ban cost the company about $150,000 because it was unable to sell to vendors throughout Florida and the nation. "It stopped us from selling entirely," she said.

Friday, Galaxy scrambled to staff about 80 roadside tents to be pitched across the state and open beginning Sunday. Hunnewell said workers had been reluctant to apply for the jobs because of the uncertainty caused by the ban.

In Pinellas, Fireworks City of Clearwater sued Sheriff Everett Rice, saying the county did not have the authority to ban the sale of fireworks after the state had issued the company a license.

The company bought $250,000 worth of merchandise in anticipation of the Fourth of July and will not be able to recoup the costs if the ban continues, the lawsuit said.

When Hillsborough adopted its ban two weeks ago, the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which measures soil moisture, measured 708. By comparison, deserts measure 800.

That week, the Florida Fire Chiefs Association asked Gov. Jeb Bush to consider a statewide ban on the sale and use of fireworks. Bush didn't approve it, and in a memo Friday encouraged local officials to do whatever they deem best for their communities.

Dennis Merrifield, president of the chiefs association, agreed local governments should make the call and said he had no problem with Hillsborough lifting the ban.

"It's fine by us, and we respect the right of local jurisdiction," said Merrifield, fire chief in Estero, near Fort Myers. "At the time we wrote our letter, it had risen to the level where it was a statewide issue."

On Thursday, the latest readings available, Hillsborough's index measured 529. Pasco had a drought index of 546. Pinellas is one of 14 Florida counties still above 700, with a reading of 713.

At a meeting of the Pasco County Commission on Friday, Florida State University meteorologist Peter Ray said it's wrong to use the index as a fire predictor. Ray, who appeared on behalf of Galaxy, said the index is intended to show the intensity of a forest fire.

The marquee in front of Galaxy Fireworks proclaimed Friday, "The ban is over." The sign caught the eye of Manley Fulcher, 18, who ducked into the store on Martin Luther King Boulevard after seeing the announcement.

"What's the Fourth of July without fireworks?" he said, carrying a handful of firecrackers.

The Plant High student may have to stock up to stay entertained this Fourth.

Though the ban never included the commercial fireworks shows planned by cities to celebrate the Fourth, financial woes have caused the cancellation of the annual downtown Tampa show, although Mayor Dick Greco said this week he is trying to revive the event.

The city of St. Petersburg plans a fireworks display on the Fourth at a waterfront park downtown. If thousands of people stream across the bridges from Hillsborough, the city will accommodate them as best it can, said St. Petersburg's Leisure Services administrator Lee Metzger.

"It's like a 5-gallon jug" he said. "When it's full, it's full. We're usually packed every year. There's nothing else we could really do (to prepare for more people). We get a large crowd normally."

An afternoon and evening of concerts, featuring an 8 p.m. appearance by '80s pop star Debbie (now Deborah) Gibson, will precede the fireworks.

-- Staff writers Alisa Ulferts, Bryan Gilmer and Anita Kumar contributed to this report. Joe Humphrey can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or humphrey@sptimes.com

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