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Bill Lynch: Let freedom, and fireworks, ring

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Sonoma had only been the center of the Bear Flag revolt for 25 days, when on July 3, 1846, John C. Fremont rode into town and declared that the next day would be celebrated as never before in our sleepy pueblo.

As the handmade Bear Flag fluttered in a gentle breeze above the Plaza, Mexican cannons roared, announcing for all within hearing distance that Sonoma’s first ever July 4 celebration was underway.

According to accounts gathered by my Grand Aunt Celeste Murphy who wrote extensively about Sonoma’s early history, the crowd included many of the Bear Flag Party along with settlers, trappers, traders and riflemen collected by Fremont and Kit Carson. A number of American naval officers and sailors from ships anchored in San Francisco Bay also attended.

Virtually all of the residents of Sonoma at the time were Mexican citizens whose country’s border had just moved 500 miles south.

The Fourth of July ball was held at the Plaza adobe of Salvador Vallejo, which had become Fremont’s official headquarters. Many daughters of Sonoma’s Mexican residents were said to have attended.

Sonoma’s position as center of an independent California was short-lived, because on July 9, just five days after the big celebration, Lt. Revere of the U.S.S. Portsmouth came to the Embarcadero by boat, marched to the Plaza with a contingent of armed men, lowered the Bear Flag and raised the flag of the United States.

While my grand aunt’s generation of old time Sonomans remembered that July 4 as the best, I remember most fondly the first one in which the big fireworks display was launched by the Sonoma Volunteer Fire Department in 1974. Before that, most fireworks, firecrackers, rockets, etc. were banned in California because of the fires they could cause.

But the City of Sonoma and many other cities in the state did allow something called “Safe and Sane” fireworks. Local nonprofit organizations sold them from temporary booths that sprouted up all over town starting about three weeks before July 4.

But even safe and sane fireworks were banned in the unincorporated area of the Valley because there just weren’t enough safe areas (without dry grass, etc.) for their use. The ban didn’t stop Sonoma Valley residents living outside the city limits from enjoying their use.

Carloads of Valley folks would drive in from Boyes Hot Springs, El Verano, Glen Ellen and other parts of our Valley to the center of town and pick a spot in the Plaza to picnic and then, as darkness fell, shoot off their safe and sane fireworks legally inside the city limits creating a dense cloud of eye-burning, sulfur-scented “smaze” engulfing downtown Sonoma.

Nor were those fireworks actually safe. Used by children improperly near dry grass, they started fires. I was one of many local businessmen who were also volunteer firefighters then. Because the City had only one paid man on duty at any given time, we were the first responders.

Rather than enjoying the Fourth of July holidays with our families, we spent the day and evening putting out small fires in various fields in and on the edge of town.

Finally, in 1974, Sonoma Fire Chief Al Mazza, persuaded the city council to ban safe and sane fireworks in the Plaza. He and the volunteers then took the lead in organizing and raising money for the annual fireworks show near the Vallejo home.

In the beginning, several volunteers from the fire department took the mandatory fireworks training course and ran the show. Later, professionals were commissioned to run it.

I still remember that 1974 July 4 evening as one of the best ever. For the first time Sonoma had a real fireworks show. And even though I and many of my fellow volunteers had to man the trucks and keep watch for stray rockets that evening, we were all proud of what we had contributed to the celebration of Independence Day in our hometown.

The Sonoma Valley Firefighters Association still sponsors the show.