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St. Helena fireworks stand

A seasonal stand in St. Helena was Napa County's last legal outlet for state-approved "safe and sane" Fourth of July fireworks until its operator, American Legion Post 199, discontinued it this year because of the October wildfires.

For many people, the Fourth of July is defined by fireworks as much as patriotism – but Napa Valley fire authorities are working to limit the rockets’ red glare to professionally run public shows, not backyards.

A longstanding but shrinking local tradition of selling and using small-bore fireworks has officially ended this year, as pre-holiday sales stopped in St. Helena and the Upvalley town became the county’s last to outlaw their sale and use.

Local fire chiefs, however, cautioned that end of over-the-counter sales by no means will spell the end of families shooting off firecrackers, even with bans stretching countywide.

“It’s usually on July Fourth that we get the biggest surge, and then a few days prior and a few days before when there are stragglers,” said Napa Fire Capt. Dan D’Angelo. “But definitely on the Fourth of July a lot of people use “safe and sane” fireworks they buy outside of Napa County and bring into the city limits.”

So-called “safe and sane” are small and non-moving pyrotechnics sanctioned by the state and sold in about 300 California communities.

D’Angelo and other area firefighting officials described efforts to use mailed notices, social media, billboards and other means to remind residents of the prohibitions – which now set Napa County apart from surrounding counties where some towns continue allowing “safe and sane” fireworks from late June through Independence Day. Further reminders will be issued through Nixle, the Napa County system that pushes emergency alerts to users’ smartphones and email accounts.

Illegal firecrackers found by Napa city fire and police forces will be confiscated, then placed in a locked 55-gallon drum in a secured lot before being destroyed by Cal Fire, D’Angelo said last week.

In Calistoga, Fire Chief Steve Campbell described home firecracker use as a special danger in Napa County’s rural north where sparks could ignite grasses after months without rain – especially when property owners allow turf to grow longer than the 4-inch limit firefighters recommend.

Even though state-approved “safe and sane” products cannot shoot into the air or move on the ground, they still can harm the careless, warned Campbell.

“Safe and sane produces a lot of sparks,” he said Thursday. “A lot of the clothes we wear are flammable and people wearing polyester and synthetics get a lot of burns, especially kids playing with sparklers. These sparklers can burn very hot.”

The enforcement will play out amid the elimination in April of Napa County’s last remaining outlet for legal sales – the St. Helena fireworks stand operated annually by American Legion Post 199. Post leaders cited the devastation of the North Bay firestorms, and the risk of errant or misused pyrotechnics triggering another disaster, in their decision to stop offering “safe and sane” fireworks, which raised as much as $20,000 a year and accounted for 40 percent of the group’s budget.

On June 12, the St. Helena City Council introduced an ordinance banning the sale, use, possession and discharge of fireworks in town, even of the “safe and sane” variety.

Although sellers posted flyers stating their products could only be set off within St. Helena, area fire chiefs had expressed worries about buyers taking the fireworks outside the city and illegally using them elsewhere.

While Campbell expected the stoppage of St. Helena sales to somewhat lessen the risk in Calistoga, he saw no immediate end to it. “That’s a recurring problem, people buying them elsewhere and bringing them back,” he said.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.