Scorching heat, dry conditions stifle July 4 celebrations

Wed Jul 4, 2012 2:38pm EDT

1 of 2. Ben Cushman returns to his home to inspect exterior tree damage in Silver Spring, Maryland July 4, 2012. A large tree crashed through the roof moments after Cushman and his wife got their children out of their beds just before last Friday's devastating storms that went through the Washington metro area. Clean up of limbs and branches from destroyed trees will precede electrical crews coming into neighborhoods to restore power lines. Storm ravaged states from Indiana to Virginia carried on Independence Day celebrations on Day 5 of a power outage caused by deadly winds ripping through the region.

Credit: Reuters/Gary Cameron

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(Reuters) - Millions of Americans headed for parades and fireworks shows on Wednesday to mark a sweltering Fourth of July holiday, some even celebrating as the nation's founders did - without electricity.

Storm-ravaged states from Indiana to Virginia carried on Independence Day celebrations on Day 5 of a power outage caused by deadly winds ripping through the region. More than 1 million homes and businesses remained affected and thousands of utility workers stayed on the job in a scramble to restore electricity.

"We still have a tree on the garage. It's been one of those weeks," said Gary Belniak, 57, of Wheaton, Illinois, who has been without power since Sunday when another destructive storm struck, forcing his town to cancel its parade and fireworks display.

Exhausted by three sleepless nights in a house where temperatures hover at about 90 degrees, Belniak said he had all but given up on the holiday.

"I decided to come to work today. That's basically my Fourth of July. I'm so irritated," he said.

In hard-hit West Virginia, Karen Allen said she planned to spend the holiday - her sixth day without power - hunting for ice.

"I'm going to go look for ice, cold gold is what it is, it's very scarce," said Allen, 43, of Charleston, West Virginia.

Sizzling heat was predicted for much of the nation, with the National Weather Service forecasting temperatures from 90 Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) to more than 100 F (37.7 C) from the Midwest to the Atlantic Coast.

Even sweltering temperatures couldn't wilt the patriotic spirit that drew crowds to hometown parades of marching bands, shiny fire trucks and children riding red, white and blue bedecked bicycles.

"America to me is small towns, kids, lollipops thrown from fire engines, balloons, dogs in the parade and hot dogs," said E.B. Kelly, 73, as she watched the 10-minute long procession in tiny Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

In Washington, President Barack Obama swore in a group of new citizens in a naturalization ceremony at the White House on Wednesday morning. The president, who later in the day will host a Fourth of July picnic for military service members and their families on the south lawn, welcomed two dozen foreign-born U.S. military personnel who were taking advantage of a program that offers them citizenship in return for their service.

"What a perfect way to celebrate America's birthday - the world's oldest democracy - with some of our newest citizens," he told the members, who came from countries including Mexico, Ghana, the Philippines, Bolivia, Guatemala, China, and Russia.

In the U.S. West, extreme warmth coupled with dry conditions snuffed out annual firework displays in scores of towns and cities, which are reeling from deadly wildfires that charred hundreds of homes and displaced tens of thousands of people.

On the East Coast, tragedy struck when a cache of fireworks apparently accidentally exploded on the back porch of a family home in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, injuring nine people including two young children whose wounds were life threatening, according to Pelham, N.H., firefighter Shawn Buckley. The children, both under age 4, were airlifted to Boston-area hospitals, according to Buckley.

BALD EAGLES BRING DOWN FIREWORKS

Elsewhere in the country, the traditional Fourth of July razzle dazzle fell victim to a tepid economy with communities either scaling back fireworks shows or canceling them altogether.

But it was the very symbol of American independence - the bald eagle - that halted the show in the small New York hamlet of Narrowsburg on the Pennsylvania border. The local fire department canceled its planned fireworks display after being warned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it could face enormous fines and even prison if any nearby bald eagles were harmed.

"We decided we're not going to take the gamble," said Fire Chief George Strumpfler, cancelling the show that began more than 100 years ago. "It doesn't look like it's ever going to happen again."

Bald eagles, the national bird of the United States, were nearly extinct before the government banned the pesticide DDT in 1972 and later brought the bird under federal protections.

One of the biggest U.S. fireworks parties, held on Washington's National Mall, will go ahead as planned on Wednesday, even after preparations on Tuesday night were abruptly interrupted when warnings of a severe thunderstorms forced police to evacuate the grounds of the Capitol.

Hours before all eyes turn to the sky for fireworks, many were focused on Joey "Jaws" Chestnut as he captured his sixth straight win at the annual Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest on the boardwalk at New York's Coney Island.

Chestnut, 28, of San Jose, California, the No. 1-ranked eater in the world, scarfed down 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, enough to win $10,000 and the champion's Mustard Yellow International Belt and to tie his own world record set in 2009.

The women's title was won by Sonia Thomas, 44, of Alexandria, Virginia, dubbed "The Black Widow," who managed to down 45 hot dogs and buns, eclipsing her own world record of 41 hot dogs and buns established in 2009.

"I am going to be 45 years old this year. I wanted to eat my age," she said after the event.

(Additional reporting by Dave Warner, Mat Murphy, Jeff Mason, Jim Wolf, Edith Honan and Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)

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