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Wildfire risks turn Ga. officials against fireworks
SAVANNAH, Ga. — After more than five weeks of wildfires, smoke and little rain, Ware County is expected to ban fireworks through the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays as severe drought conditions has left lawns, leaves and bushes as combustible as kindling.
    Meanwhile, the Georgia Forestry Commission is urging all of state’s residents to not light fireworks to help avoid any more wildfires.
    Fire officials normally don’t worry about fireworks until the Fourth of July, but some retailers have begun stocking them in time for Memorial Day, and the record-setting wildfire burning in the Okefenokee Swamp has made officials even more cautious.
    The Ware County Commission plans to vote on a 60-day firework ban Thursday afternoon. It was proposed by Joe Cornelius III, a commissioner and volunteer firefighter who has helped battle the wildfire that started April 16 near Waycross.
    ‘‘The way conditions are right now, all it would take is a spark,’’ Cornelius said. ‘‘If people want to blame me because they can’t have a sparkler on Memorial Day weekend, I’ll take the heat.’’
    The Forestry Commission has sent 30-second radio spots to 200 stations statewide warning Georgians to be extra cautious outdoors with cigarette butts, barbecue grills and lawnmowers this holiday weekend. The agency also said fireworks, even the very limited types that are legal in Georgia, pose too great a risk to be used at all.
    ‘‘We’re basically asking people not to use fireworks,’’ said Alan Dozier, the Forestry Commission’s chief firefighter. ‘‘A lot of parents think it’s safe to give sparklers to their kids, but you may as well just send them out with matches.’’
    Georgia banned all fireworks until 2005, when state lawmakers voted to allow sales of sparklers and other items that don’t explode or shoot balls of flame. Firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles as well as many others are still illegal.
    Dozier said fireworks started 25 fires in the state over the July Fourth holiday last year, and conditions are much worse now.
    Central and south Georgia are so dry that more than half of the state faces an ‘‘extreme’’ fire danger — the most severe rating — the commission said. Everywhere else, the threat is considered ‘‘high’’ or ‘‘very high.’’
    In the past month, firefighters have battled dozens of small wildfires across Georgia while focusing most of their efforts on the huge blaze in the Okefenokee that has burned more than 481,450 acres — or 752 square miles — in southeast Georgia and northern Florida.
    In Florida, which has fireworks laws similar to Georgia, officials are less worried about fireworks than fires started by lawnmowers, logging equipment and running cars parked on dry grass, said Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
    ‘‘We are not planning on instituting a fireworks ban. Fireworks are not the problem,’’ Compton said. ‘‘But we are recommending that people not use them.’’
    Georgia’s largest wildfire started last month when a tree fell onto power lines near Waycross on the northern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.
    John Oxendine, Georgia’s fire safety commissioner, said he doesn’t have the authority to halt firework sales in the state. He said those decisions would be left up to individual cities and counties.
    Oxendine said he did not know of any other local governments considering a firework ban.
    James Ginn, a Ware County spokesman, said he expected an unanimous vote from commissioners on the county’s proposed ban. The wildfire destroyed 21 homes in the county, forced dozens of residents to temporarily evacuate at times and still smothers the area with thick smoke some days.
    ‘‘The commissioners have a pretty good idea that fireworks are not a good idea at this particular point in time,’’ Ginn said.
    A ban by the county commission would not affect firework sales in Waycross, its largest city, said Tony Walsh, the Waycross fire marshal.
    Walsh said he doesn’t think Waycross retailers are selling fireworks yet. But he’s received permit applications from retailers wanting to set up firework tents in shopping center parking lots beginning in late June.
    Unless Waycross officials ban fireworks as well, Walsh said, he’ll likely approve those sales permits.
    ‘‘It’s one of those legal products you’ve got to suffer the consequences of,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s hard to tell people, ‘Don’t use a legal product.’’’
    Associated Press writer Ron Word in Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this story.
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