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Of permits and pyrotechnics 

One man’s struggle for a fireworks show details what constitutes a legal Fourth of July celebration

This Fourth of July, bombs bursting in air and rockets’ red glare may be in short supply in San Luis Obispo County. Only a handful of local cities allow the use of personal fireworks, and a string of permits—coupled with costly price tags—prevent many organizations from hosting large firework displays of their own.

click to enlarge FIRE IN THE SKY :  Legal fireworks are typically few and far between throughout most of San Luis Obispo County. - FILE PHOTO
  • FIRE IN THE SKY : Legal fireworks are typically few and far between throughout most of San Luis Obispo County.

# With the exception of a fireworks show at Cal Poly’s 2003 Homecoming, San Luis Obispo hasn’t hosted a pyro-run display in more years than most residents can remember. SLO Blues Owner Tim Golden has lived in San Luis Obispo for four decades and couldn’t recall ever watching a fireworks display from his own backyard. That all changed, however, when he organized a display for SLO Blues’ opening game on May 28. Still, his road to celebratory sparks and explosions was a rocky one.

“For the fireworks on opening day, we didn’t have actual approval until 3:55 on Friday,� Golden said. “There was a ton of red tape. We’ve been working on this for years, but it always kind of fizzled out.�

To ignite his spark of an idea, Golden signed a contract with Pyro Spectaculars, an organization that’s provided displays for Disneyland, the Super Bowl, and the Olympics. After dreaming of hosting fireworks in conjunction with a SLO Blues game for nearly 10 years, Golden signed a contract for three firework displays: the first on opening night, the second after the July 3 game, and the final display following the closing game on July 29. Despite the cost, purchasing the fireworks wasn’t nearly as difficult as was obtaining the necessary permits for the city to sanction the display, Golden said.

“This is the first time anyone has ever been through the entire permit process,� said SLO County Fire Marshall John Madden. “I’ve had requests in the past, but once people find out what it costs, they’re not interested.�

Because the city had never been through the process of approving a permit for a fireworks display, the process required more time and patience from Golden, who was concerned that this year’s request would fall by the wayside—as it had before. After commissioning Pyro Spectaculars to provide the fireworks, Golden contacted the fire department about safety permits.

“John Madden was awesome,� Golden said. “We just did the walk-through, and he was really cooperative.�

The Parks and Recreation Department required that Golden file a special-event permit, and a committee from the fire, police, and parks and recreation departments reviewed Golden’s permits and insurance information before approving his request. A spokesperson with the Parks and Recreation Department said that Golden had to receive permission from the school district before hosting the display on district-owned property. The school district readily gave permission, but Golden was still surprised by the number of hurdles he hadn’t expected to encounter.

The city’s attorney required Pyro Spectaculars and the SLO Blues to put up $10 million in insurance. Golden didn’t believe that the SLO Blues could obtain even a $5 million insurance policy, and the city eventually accepted $7 million: $5 million from Pyro Spectaculars and $2 million from the SLO Blues. According to Pyro Spectaculars representatives, the largest insurance policy they’ll provide is $5 million, a sum that’s necessary for fireworks displays at the Olympics and other larger venues. For a relatively small display in a city the size of San Luis Obispo, Pyro Spectaculars is rarely required to put up $5 million in insurance.

Despite a few minor problems, the first show went off without any significant hitch. That’s a relief for Golden, who was concerned that future fireworks would be cancelled if there was a problem during the first spectacular.

“We’re not a huge corporation, so when people saw fireworks, they probably thought, ‘Golden brought fireworks over the border in Tijuana,’� he joked.

While some people may have just watched that opening-night show and wondered how Golden pulled off a fireworks display, others called the emergency dispatcher to report gunfire. Because nobody had alerted the dispatcher that fireworks were taking place, there was some confusion about what was going on. Ultimately, everything was resolved, and Golden hopes that his future displays will be patriotically reminiscent of battles for independence—rather than battles for permits and insurance policies. ∆


Independence Day battles
Aside from the SLO Blues July 3 fireworks display, SLO residents had better keep their Fourth of July fireworks—including sparklers—away from San Luis Obispo. The cities of Arroyo Grande, Templeton, San Miguel, Oceano, and Grover Beach may be a haven for refugee Piccolo Petes, but all other cities in the county have banned the use of fireworks by anyone who isn’t a state-licensed pyrotechnic.

“People from San Luis Obispo will go to other cities where they’re legal and buy stuff and think it’s OK to come back,� said SLO County Fire Marshall John Madden. “Some years, we’ve confiscated upwards of 10 to 20 pounds of fireworks.�

Though most police and fire officials plan to confiscate fireworks without issuing a citation, they do plan to take into consideration the types of fireworks and whether they’re being set off responsibly.

Though fire officials note that fireworks are illegal due to the danger they pose, few cities have recorded serious physical injuries resulting from firework displays in the past few years. That record, however, doesn’t mean that fire departments are willing to legalize fireworks.

“Injuries happen, but we’ve been really lucky,� said Pismo Beach Police Department Sgt. Tom Trotz. “I cannot recall any serious bodily injury, but when you’re dealing with burning materials or explosives, the potential’s always there.�

Confusion as to whether fireworks are legal in a certain area or not may stem from the fact that every city has its own regulations. Fireworks are legal in Arroyo Grande, but only on the Fourth of July and only in specific sizes. Other cities where fireworks are legal have their own regulations. And many residents of the cities that ban fireworks ignore the laws altogether.

Every July 4, police and firemen patrol the streets looking for illegal fireworks. Usually, Madden said, people scatter and hide, creating a scenario that he described as a “cat-and-mouse game.� Fortunately for the cat part of the scenario, the Fourth of July falls on a Tuesday, limiting weekend celebrations. God bless America. ∆

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach can be reached at


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