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Fourth of July Begins to Warm Up

Police, fire marshals gear up for safe Independence Day, others to watch one of three fireworks displays.

With Independence Day still a week away, Curtis Stillwell has already seen one of the best fireworks displays of the year.

Stillwell, an Arlington fire marshal, was on hand in Loudoun County in January, when officials from around Northern Virginia set off a extravaganza of fireworks. Every January, fire marshals from around the region gather in Loudoun and set off five of each kind of firework to be sold, to ensure that all are legal in Virginia.

"We’re there on official business," Stillwell said. "But there’s a little kid in everybody with that many fireworks going off."

There are fireworks going off around Arlington over the course of the next two weeks, leading up to the big day, July 4, when three different displays will compete for the "oohs" and "aahs" of Arlingtonians.

<b>FIRST AND FOREMOST</b> is the National Independence Day Celebration, with fireworks exploding over the Mall in Washington. Vantage points in eastern Arlington offer a view of the display, including space on the Ft. Myer parade grounds, open to the public for the Fourth.

At the same time, local displays bring fireworks to neighborhoods in North and South Arlington, with the annual fireworks display at the Washington Golf and Country Club, 3017 N. Glebe Road, and the county’s official fireworks display at Barcroft Park, 4100 S. Four Mile Run Drive.

"If I were going to choose, I would go to Ft. Myer," said Debbie Powers, with the special events unit in Arlington’s department of parks, recreation and community resources.

But she doesn’t get to choose. Instead, she’ll be on hand at Barcroft, the only park big enough for a fireworks display in the county. "You have to have a 600-foot buffer," she said. "We just make it at Barcroft, but that’s the only place there’s space for it."

There are advantages to the Country Club show, she said. "On a good night, you can see theirs and the national fireworks too. But not if it’s cloudy."

Still, while her job leads her to the county’s fireworks display, Powers said that Ft. Myer’s fields are worth any wait for the view they offer. "I would endure the security, because they have a great place to view the fireworks there."

<b>EXTRA SECURITY</b> will be in place at Ft. Myer this year, Cynthia Smith said. But that shouldn’t deter visitors, said Smith, a spokeswoman for the Army base. While security has been tightened since Sept. 11, it doesn’t mean closing Whipple Field, the fort’s parade grounds, to members of the public.

"We’re still going to open up the field, but we’re going to increase security for Independence Day activities," Smith said.

Visitors to the base had to undergo some security checks in the past, and the fort will still offer space to watch the national fireworks display from Whipple Field. But visitors will find some additional security checks in place, with military police conducting vehicle checks on the way into the base.

Visitors will also pass through metal detectors as they head onto Whipple field, and face a few new restrictions on what they can bring to the fireworks. "This is just to ensure the security of the people who live and work here," Smith said.

There has always been a list of what not to bring on base, she said, and there are only two additions this year – but they may prove significant to the Fourth of July visitors. This year, there will be no cameras allowed onto Ft. Myer, and no food, drinks or coolers.

That’s not to say everyone has to starve, Smith said. Instead, the fort will set up concession stands around Whipple Field selling cookout fare.

<b>SECURITY WILL ALSO</b> be a concern for Arlington police. For the first Independence Day after Sept. 11, there will be more county police patrolling county streets, said Matt Martin, spokesman for the department. But local officers won’t be quite as stringent as Ft. Myer MPs.

"It’s not quite to that degree, but we are increasing our manpower," Martin said. "We’ll have more people at the Fourth of July celebration locations than in the past, near Iwo Jima and at Barcroft Park. Those are the two places where we’ll have crowd control, just extra people."

In addition, Arlington police will man posts along the George Washington Parkway, posts that in years past have been manned by National Park Service police. "Instead of sending Arlington officers into DC, we’re freeing up Park Police so they can work in DC," Martin said.

Arlington fire marshals will also be on patrol on July 4, and on the days leading up to it, Stillwell said. But most of the work is just public education, he said.

There are two licensed fireworks stands in the county, he said, and fire marshals try to send customers there, rather than from buying from their neighbors or from the back of a truck.

But just buying legal fireworks doesn’t guarantee safety. "It’s still an open flame, still an explosive," he said. "It’s only safe if you follow written guidelines. It’s the misuse that gets people hurt."

When Arlingtonians are setting off their own backyard fireworks display, Stillwell encourages them to follow a few safety measures: have a garden hose handy, and maybe even wet down the lawn ahead of time, especially during a dry summer.

"To dispose of them, get a metal bucket filled with water," he said "Once it’s gone off, after maybe 20 or 30 minutes, put it in the bucket, soak it, and then you can dispose of it in a household garbage can."

Because few people observe all the safety precautions, Stillwell usually asks them to follow one piece of advice above all else.

"I encourage people that the safest thing to do is go to a public display," he said. "I’m looking for more crowds this year, because of patriotism."