We went out to a hill to view last night’s Independence Day fireworks after an afternoon at a family barbecue. Some years we go down to the beach for a closer view. This year the process of getting there, finding a parking space (usually very far away), walking all the way down (and all the way back up) with a small child, finding a viewing spot, and afterward spending over an hour to get out through clogged streets just wasn’t appealing.

So we went to a hill a mile or so away, joining a standing throng of people waiting for the local show to start. To the east and southeast we could see distant fireworks lighting up the horizon from San Pedro to Norwalk. Around the corner we could see a similar view of fireworks to the northeast, including Los Angeles proper.

It’s one thing to see one fireworks show at a time. It’s another to look out and see them all along the horizon. It’s unifying, appropriately enough.

We’d only been there a few minutes when the seaside display started. The next ridge of hills blocked the lower fireworks, but we could see most of them above the hill — without the deafening booms and smoke. The wind was blowing inland off the ocean, a smoke plume trailing sideways. As the finale hit, someone nearby set off their own unsanctioned display, to considerable applause.

After it was all over, we stayed for a few minutes, looking out at the more distant displays still going, then walked down the hill to the car and drove home.

The faint boom-boom-boom continued for hours, punctuated every 15-20 minutes by some closer pop! or shriek as someone set something off nearby. Sometime around midnight, it finally tapered off enough that I drifted off to sleep.

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.