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Beijing readies for an explosive new year

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BEIJING — The Chinese capital prepared to usher in the Lunar New Year with a bang Saturday, after authorities lifted a 12-year ban on fireworks.

As residents stocked up on fireworks, officials were urging caution, fearing the sharp rise in injuries and fires that accompanied the holiday period before the ban was imposed.

About 4,000 firefighters were placed on standby, with 21 fire engines and 129 firefighters dispatched to the most densely populated areas of Beijing, the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper reported.

The city's hotline for reporting fires told the newspaper it had expanded its regular team of four to 40 to cope with the expected flood of calls after midnight.

The new rules allow Beijing residents to explode fireworks all day on Jan. 28 and 29 — New Year's Eve and New Year's Day — and from 7 a.m. to midnight every day from Jan. 30 to Feb. 12.

About 3,000 police and community officers will patrol off-limits areas such as schools, retirement homes and historic relics, the Beijing Daily newspaper said.

The thundering explosions of fireworks were expected to reach their peak just before and after the start of New Year's Day, as millions take part in a thousands-year-old tradition meant to drive away bad luck and scare off evil spirits.

But it seemed many residents couldn't wait, and by 6 p.m. Saturday the capital's streets echoed with the sounds of exploding firecrackers.

Beijing lifted the ban after a survey last year found that 70 percent of residents felt fireworks made the holiday period more festive.

"We have had this ban for more than a decade, but lifting it shows that the government is considering the ordinary person's desire to set off fireworks in the traditional way," said a 23-year-old waitress who gave only her first name, Anna.

"Now it is safer, as we can buy legal fireworks in designated stores," she said.

Earlier this month, 585 shops in the city center received permits to sell fireworks from Dec. 1.

"Sales have been very good," said a Beijing store manager who gave her name only as Zheng.

Zheng said she had already sold $12,500 worth of fireworks, with the cheapest being the most popular.

But not everyone was so keen on lifting the ban.

"It causes pollution and injuries and too many paper scraps, causing heavy work for cleaners," said the manager of a Beijing hotel, who gave his name only as Zhang.

"They should find some other way to celebrate the new year," he said.