Last year for the Fourth of July, we drove down to the Redondo Beach Pier to watch the fireworks being launched over the bay. It was a good display, but the logistics of getting out there and back was a major mess. We were already uncertain about how to handle it this year, and then J fell asleep the moment we got in the car (after refusing to nap all afternoon).

So this year we decided to just find a hillside and see what we could see. We stopped at the end of a residential street, where we could see a few other people out watching. We couldn’t see the local fireworks, but if we looked inland, we could see we could see distant fireworks displays all along the horizon.

On the other side of the very narrow block, the hillside drops sharply, offering a clear view south and east, and a slightly obstructed view to the west. (It’s the same area as where I went to watch the sun rise after a lunar eclipse last December.) There were a lot more people crowded there, all watching the local display. The low-level parts were hidden behind a hill, but the higher ones were clearly visible. I put J on my shoulders so he could watch — he probably doesn’t remember seeing fireworks before. Every once in a while I’d look off in the other direction to see what was visible in some neighboring city.

Seeing so many fireworks at once in the distance made for a very different experience than seeing one display up close. Not only was it stunning, but it drives home the point that this really is something all Americans celebrate together.

We went to Laguna Beach last night for the fireworks display, starting with dinner at Ocean Avenue and moving down to the beach at sunset. They shoot the fireworks out over the bluffs, making the beach a prime viewing spot. We could also see the fireworks from Dana Point and Newport Beach lighting up the cloud layer.

It was crowded as usual, and I managed to get my legs soaked when I was standing out where I thought I was safe from the waves, but even with the cloud cover and offshore breeze it wasn’t too cold after nightfall. (Yes, it cools down at night even in July next to the ocean.)

Last year I experimented with the fireworks setting on my camera. This year I just braced it, pointed it roughly in the right direction, and hit the button every once in a while and just watched the show. I ended up with about a dozen photos worth sharing.

Afterward we stopped at Dolce Gelato for ice cream, where I learned that cookies and cream does not always mean Oreo or chocolate wafers (they make theirs with Italian crostatas), but plain cream gelato goes really well with berry sorbet!

Most cities in Orange County have banned the sale and setting off of fireworks to and by the general public for safety reasons. Of course, fireworks are an Independence Day tradition, so most cities also put on professional displays on the Fourth of July.

But a lot of people like the hands-on experience of setting off fireworks themselves. This leaves them with three choices:

  1. Go somewhere where setting off your own fireworks is legal.
  2. Shrug it off.
  3. Sneak around and hope you don’t get caught.

#1 is getting harder all the time as more cities clamp down on fireworks. #2, I imagine, is unsatisfying. #3 is stupid, because chances are pretty good that you’ll either get unsafe fireworks, or use them unsafely (because you’re trying to hide the fact that you’re setting off explosives), and end up burning someone, or burning their house down, or starting a 75-acre brush fire because you went out into the boonies in hopes that no one would catch you, but didn’t think about the fact that you were surrounded by dry grass.

So here’s my proposal:

If you’re going to ban fireworks, instead of banning them outright, set aside a designated area where people can set them off themselves.. Fairgrounds and/or large parking lots would be good for this. The Great Park, perhaps? Keep fire crews on standby. Limit the number of people so that you can evacuate safely if something goes wrong. Limit the types of fireworks people are allowed to bring in so that it’s hard for them to bring in homemade crap that’s more likely to blow off their hands than make a nice show.

It will never happen in today’s litigious society, of course. The first time someone broke the rules and someone else got hurt, people would start suing the city because it should have been safe! Even if it was a private company running the event, they’d get sued, along with the property owner for allowing it to happen, and the city for allowing them to run it in the first place.

We took our annual trip down to Laguna Beach to watch the fireworks display launched off the bluffs. This time we made reservations for dinner at a restaurant we’d walked by a bunch of times, Ocean Avenue Restaurant and Brewery. Would definitely go there again.

Around 7:30 we staked out a spot on the beach, which was already crowded. At the time we got there, the daytime beach-goers were just leaving, while the fireworks crowd was just arriving. I kicked off my shoes and waded out into the surf a bit, taking pictures of seagulls and scenery. Then it became clear the tide was coming in, and we moved up the beach to an area that didn’t have any seaweed. Sure, it was 10 feet from a volleyball court and next to a group with a couple of umbrellas (which they never did take down), but at least we could rely on not getting flooded during the show.

It cooled off pretty quickly, and I went across the street to get us both some coffee at one of the two Starbucks. Yes, two. (One used to be a Diedrich.) The line was about 15 feet out the door when I got there, and it took me about 25 minutes to get through it, by which time I just ordered plain coffee so I could get out of there quickly. It had stretched to at least 40 feet out the door!

The sky grew darker, the moon grew brighter, and stars started peeking out, and finally around 10 minutes to 9, a lone firework went off. I’m fairly certain they do a test fire, because there always seems to be one firework that goes off about 10 minutes before the show gets going. Soon we could hear low booming sounds in the distance, and flashes of light started appearing over the bluffs from the next display up the coast (Corona del Mar, maybe?)

Meanwhile, the volleyball game was still going, even without any light except the moon and streetlights.

A little after 9, the fireworks started, launched out over the ocean from somewhere behind the bluffs at the northwest end of the beach. The volleyball game stopped, people rearranged themselves to be able to see, and we ended up standing and drinking coffee. I experimented with the night and fireworks settings on my camera, and tried out the video on my phone, but mostly just watched. I actually got a few decent shots.

The wind was good, blowing the smoke parallel to the beach and keeping the view of the fireworks clear. (A few years ago, it lingered, so after a few minutes we got to see smoke lit up in pretty colors.) Every once in a while, I’d look behind to see the moon and the fireworks from the next display along the coast the other way (Dana Point?), barely visible in the distance.

After the big finale, just about everyone started leaving the beach, heading for one of the few places where you can cross PCH. We stopped at a gelato place on our way back to the car, tried some flavors, and shared a two-scoop cup with one scoop of ginger and one of pineapple chocolate chip. They went surprisingly well together.

By the time we made it back to the car (parked up near the Laguna Playhouse), the traffic had died down a bit and we had a smooth drive up the canyon. After a while, we started seeing bright flashes of light over the hills, and realized even after 10:00 there must still be another fireworks show going. As near as either of us could tell it was near the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

Finally got home, avoiding the two raccoons that ran in front of the car, washed the sand off of our shoes and feet, and I started going through the photos looking to see how many actually turned out well.

(Originally posted at LiveJournal. More photos at Flickr.)