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Caution urged using fireworks

Despite very dry conditions, fire officials have not asked for a ban on fireworks _ as long as they are handled carefully.

Hernando County's fire chiefs on Friday advised against banning fireworks for the weekend New Year's Eve celebrations.

County officials had toyed with the idea briefly this week as drought conditions worsened.

But Friday, as two weeks earlier, they decided against such a drastic step.

"We all agreed that, given the rain we had yesterday, we don't really see fireworks being used in a safe manner being a problem," said Mike Nickerson, chief of the Hernando County Fire Rescue District.

The rainfall did little to alleviate fears about wildfires, however.

Hernando County received only 0.26 of an inch of rain on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service, and its Keetch-Byram Drought Index rating rose by one point to 627. On the index, 800 represents extreme drought.

"The KBDI has Hernando County as one of the driest in Florida," said Mike Morgan, chief of the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District. "Certainly we're going to have to look into that if we continue not to have any rain."

The chiefs have recommended that county commissioners discuss whether to institute another outdoor burning ban when they reconvene Jan. 9. They are making no recommendations at this time, Nickerson said, because conditions could change in the intervening two weeks.

Rain is not in the forecast for the next five days.

If the situation remains the same, the county will face nearly identical circumstances as those they had in March, when they last banned burning. At that time, the drought index was slightly higher than 600, and it recently had rained.

Commissioners required that anyone who wanted to burn outdoors or use fireworks to get a county or state permit. That ban remained in effect for more than three months.

Chairman Chris Kingsley said next month's conversation is necessary. He agreed with the chiefs' decision not to ban fireworks for the holiday.

"It doesn't matter if it's wet or dry if people are careless with fireworks," Kingsley said.

The rationale behind not prohibiting fireworks extends beyond that, Nickerson said. No other county is planning a ban, he noted, which would mean that Hernando County residents simply could cross into Pasco, Citrus or Sumter counties to get fireworks legally.

Most of the truly dangerous fireworks are illegal anyway, Morgan said, so no one should be able to get them.

"There's certainly cause for concern," Nickerson said. "However, at this late date, if we tried to enact it, it'd be ineffective."

The experts cautioned against using fireworks, and recommended several steps for those who ignite them. These included setting fireworks in well-cleared areas that are paved or dirt, and keeping a garden hose and water nearby.

Firework safety suggestions

Hernando County's three fire chiefs recommended against a fireworks ban for New Year's Eve but said a "high degree of caution" is needed when using fireworks or burning outdoors because of persistent drought conditions. They offered the following precautions:

1. Display only legal fireworks (bottle rockets and firecrackers are dangerous and illegal).

2. Display fireworks only on fire-resistant surfaces such as pavement, concrete or lime rock.

3. Discard sparkler remains in metal containers, never in the grass or a trash can with other paper waste.

4. Have a hose available in case of fire.

5. Keep recreational fires small and away from buildings, grass and brush.

6. Never leave an open fire unattended. Drown fire with water after use.

7. Call 911 as soon as any fire is discovered.

_ Source: Hernando County Fire Rescue