Laser Light Show Grants Fall Flat in Favor of Fireworks

No town in California's San Joaquin Valley accepted a pollution control grant to hold a July 4 laser light show instead of fireworks.
by | June 27, 2012 AT 2:30 PM

The time-honored tradition of fireworks on Independence Day beat out environmentalist efforts for a pollution-free Fourth of July celebration in the San Joaquin Valley.

In an effort to control air pollution in the smog-prone region, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District offered three towns in the valley up to $10,000 to celebrate the Fourth of July with a laser light show to replace fireworks. None of the towns accepted the offer.

“We have ozone problems during the summer, but the particulate spikes are an anomaly,” said Jaime Holt, chief communications officer with the district, of the increased particulate readings detected on the evenings of July 4th and 5th in previous years.  Holt said that particulate spikes are typical of the winter but considered rare during the summer months.

“You have to remember that we are in the valley — hills to the south, hills to the north,” said Angie Avila, CEO of King’s District Fair in Hanford, Calif. “The air from the cities flows into the valley, and that’s us.” Hanford is a valley city that originally expressed interest in the laser light show alternative. The King’s District Fair assumed control this year over the city’s Fourth of July celebration after the city decided it could no longer fund the fireworks display, a move typical of cities across the country in recent years. The King’s District Fair relies on fundraising and sponsorship, so Avila said that the District’s $10,000 Fourth of July grant seemed like a great opportunity.

According to Avila, the first initial quote for a laser light show was a mere $15,000. However, she later learned that for the city to have a laser light show of any real caliber, the cost skyrocketed to close to $40,000 for the show alone. “You can’t have a fourth of July show with just light beams,” Avila said of the cheaper laser display. “It would have been two minutes and the kids would have been done and gone. We want a really good show. For that kind of money we can put on one heck of a fireworks show.” Avila said the city is aware of the pollution, but will keep the pyrotechnic tradition for this year. “The fourth of July isn’t the fourth of July if you don’t have fireworks,” Avila said.

This is a sentiment echoed wholeheartedly by another California city. Three years ago, Morro Bay, Calif., held a laser light show in place of the fireworks display for the Fourth celebration. “Morro Bay will never do a laser light show again,” said Sharon Bufo of the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce. A YouTube video of the evening shows lines of people leaving part way through the performance as twangy country music droned in the background.

“It was like a bad Pink Floyd concert,” said Daniel Podesto, president of the Morro Bay 4th Inc., which now runs the city’s Fourth celebrations. Morro Bay is a coastal city prone to foggy summer evenings, many of which have coincided with the Fourth of July in years past. Podesto said this often interfered with the visual impact of the pyrotechnics display.

Peter Candela, who was CEO of Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce in 2009, said the weather was the main catalyst for the decision to go laser. The hope was the innovative show would play the fog to their advantage and solve the visibility issue. The problem was that despite four years of consistently foggy Fourths, the 2009 show was completely clear. According to Candela, laser lights require a backdrop. Without the fog, they were merely aimless beams of light.

“We still have to this day people come up to us and joke, ‘You aren’t going to do that laser light show again?’” Podesto said. “Three years later and it is still a running joke.”

Fireworks are a tradition for celebrating the Independence Day that goes back as far as July 4, 1777, before the day was even an official holiday. “I think it goes back to the Star Spangled Banner, and the idea of the bombs bursting in air,” Podesto said. “It is recreating the scene of the war and the fight for independence.” Podesto said that for Morro Bay, the decision to hold a laser light show or fireworks display is not environmentally related. While Morro Bay is home to a population of endangered birds, Podesto said that the display steers clear of the bird habitats. The Morro Bay 4th Inc., reviews the environmental impact on the bird habitats before and after the display, and Podesto said the fireworks have not affected the habitat.

Holt, with the Valley Air Pollution Control District, said that the San Joaquin Valley is unique in its pollution concerns. The District hosts a number of other environmental initiatives awarding over $400 million in grants over the last six years in an effort to reduce the area’s air pollution. Holt said the District is still open to any valley town ready to give up the pyrotechnics in favor of lasers. The grant will remain available for 2012 but will be reconsidered for 2013.