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Fourths fireworks set off explosive cravings

Oregonians find ways, legal or not, to satisfy light and sound urges

To Gene Andrew, who holds the keys to a 7,800-square-foot fireworks outpost in Vancouver, Wash., 'there are basically three camps of people.'

'You've got Oregonians who follow state law, and you've got those who don't and come here.'

The manager of the Fort Vancouver fireworks tent pauses, then smiles.

'And in a class all of their own,' he says, 'you've got people who go to Indian reservations.'

'Let's just put it this way: I bought something in Puyallup (Wash.) a few years ago that I've been afraid to set off. I'm pretty sure it'd shatter all the windows in my house.'

Whether Oregonians settle on the multitude of fireworks displays and retail stands posted throughout the state, or head north for bigger and brighter (and sometimes illegal) endeavors, they appear to pursue their fireworks fix with determination.

In Oregon, all fireworks have to burn on the ground, meaning nothing can explode or move. In Washington, fireworks that are shot from a mortar are legal; firecrackers, including M-80s, and any fireworks guided by fins or sticks, such as bottle rockets, are prohibited. Federal law, which regulates the fireworks sold on tribal reservations, prohibits M-80s.

The Tribune recently took to the highway to explore how some of the area's fireworks hobbyists and explosion addicts celebrate their independence.

Vancouver

Just a few miles from the state line, Andrew counts the Oregon license plates on the cars parked outside of his fireworks tent.

'About 60 percent of our business comes from Oregon,' explains Andrew, executive board member of the Fort Vancouver Fourth of July Celebration Committee Inc. Ñ a nonprofit that sells fireworks to pay for the $100,000 pyrotechnic display at Fort Vancouver.

'Oregon loses millions to Washington every July,' says Andrew, who helps thousands of customers during the 7 1/2 days he's in business. 'From a revenue perspective, the state's fireworks laws really ought to change.'

Will Cleary, 11, couldn't agree more. He came to the tent with his dad on one mission: to take home to Lake Oswego a cartload of Washington fireworks.

'We don't ask where they plan to use the fireworks,' says Andrew, who retired from the Navy in 1978. 'We assume that Oregonians know the rules.'

Chehalis Reservation

About 90 miles north of the Oregon-Washington border, the Chehalis Reservation would stand relatively unnoticed if it weren't for the artillery of explosions echoing through patches of forest along Anderson Road.

'It's like a war zone over here,' Sasha Starr of Chehalis yells over the boom of fireworks.

Local children walk past her with armfuls of bottle rockets and firecrackers Ñ a supply convoy for the troops of older children lighting fuse after fuse on the dirt mounds surrounding Starr's fireworks stand.

'When we started, there were only about 20 stands,' says Starr, who has manned a reservation fireworks booth with her mother for six years. 'It's really expanded over the last three years Ñ I think we're now up to 78 stands.'

Tom McGregor of Wilsonville and Justin Kent of Portland started coming to Chehalis with their fathers six years ago. The two families spend anywhere from $300 to $500 on fireworks every year.

The reservation offers a dizzying circle of stands showcasing items that aren't even legal in Washington.

But despite state patrol officers circling the reservation lines, Kent says he isn't worried about getting caught with illegal fireworks.

'Some people get so paranoid, but what's the point? As far as I'm concerned, the thrill of doing your own fireworks show is worth the risk,' he says.

Odds are that Oregonians won't face legal repercussions for their use of illegal fireworks. Lt. Glenn Chastain of the Oregon State Police says the department lacks the funding to beef up enforcement during firework season.

Chastain explains that firework violations fall into two categories: a civil penalty and possession of unlawful fireworks.

'A civil penalty can cost someone $500 per violation,' he explains. 'And possession falls under a Class B misdemeanor, which can be prosecuted in court.' Conviction can result in a maximum fine of $2,000 and/or six months' imprisonment. And if fire or injury result from the use of illegal fireworks, other charges can apply, Chastain says.

Willamette River

A few dozen fireworks enthusiasts gather at a west-bank dock 20 minutes from downtown Portland, one week before the Fourth of July.

At the final stages of a process that started six months ago, these volunteers prepare four barges for the 16th Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Salem and Fort Vancouver public fireworks shows.

Under the direction of Western Display Fireworks Ñ a Canby company behind more than 200 fireworks shows on Independence Day alone Ñ volunteers shovel sand and clear special mortars on barges that eventually will hold enough black powder to level a small house.

Steve Worley, a 19-year-old volunteer from Salem, hopes to get his pyrotechnic license when he turns 21. 'I've been messing around with fireworks since I was a kid Ñ it is such a huge rush,' he says.

'Pyrotechnics in training have to set off at least one of the shells by hand during a show,' explains Norm Rose, marketing director for Western Display. 'It's a pretty big deal since quick-match fuses burn about 60 feet a second.'

But these three shows will be orchestrated via a laptop computer with custom fireworks programming. 'Music is choreographed with light. It takes about a month and a half to finish, but it's a real piece of art when it's done,' Rose says.

Each of the barges will have about six pyrotechnics on board.

'I think the biggest thrill for everyone involved happens after the last salute explodes,' Rose says. 'We just take off our goggles, pull out our earplugs, and the only thing you can hear is applause. Now that is a rush.'