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Festive fireworks light up sleepy Philippine town

Gunpowder coats Angelito Garce as the Philippine pyrotechnics wizard works his magic on a vat of industrial chemicals, turning them into exploding cows, pythons and fountains.

Come nightfall on Friday, his grimy and dangerous toil is expected to help light up the Asian archipelago's skies as millions of New Year revellers set off fireworks for a loud and fiery send off to 2010.

The 16 million-dollar industry is based in the sleepy town of Baliuag and adjoining towns near Manila, where tiny sheds rise amid a sea of green rice paddies to give farmers some work between harvests.

"Our jobs depend on people using fireworks to celebrate," Garce, 44, told AFP as he and 30 relatives and friends worked overtime to meet what could be a last-minute surge in demand.

Garce is considered among the master artisans who specialise in mixing gunpowder with other chemicals, a tradecraft passed from one generation to another in an unbroken string lasting more than a hundred years.

Drums filled with water line the shed's walls in case a fire breaks out - a firetruck would not fit on the narrow tracks and would likely get stuck in the mud.

Though the work is dirty and potentially life-threatening, the average pay of 3,000 pesos (68 dollars) a week is good money in a country where the daily factory wage is typically less than six dollars.

"Outside these walls are rice fields where you have to toil and wait months before harvest. In here you can make your products in an instant. We get paid quickly," Garce said.

Factories such as these employ some 100,000 people in Baliuag and nearby areas of Bulacan province, churning out fireworks of different sizes and calibre.

The louder the explosions, the quirkier the names and the higher the prices they fetch.

Of the street-legal varieties, the "Judas Belt", presumably named after Jesus Christ's disciple-turned-traitor Judas Iscariot, is a string of triangular crackers that pop like a rifle clip emptying in rapid fire.

A longer version has appropriated the Filipino name for python. Revellers wrap them around lamp posts or trees to be set off minutes before the clock strikes midnight to welcome the New Year.

A "fountain" shoots sparks about 2.5 metres (about eight feet) into the air, while a "screaming cow" moos before it explodes in a loud bang.

Locals say a powerful firecracker that can approximate the explosion of a grenade can also be bought on the sly.

Named after the infamous Al Qaeda leader, the (Osama) "bin Laden" is however difficult to find and shopkeepers will not openly admit to selling them.

Prices range from as low as 400 pesos to as high as 12,000 pesos depending on their size and explosive power.

The pyrotechnics industry in the Philippines emerged in 1867, inspired by a Spanish Roman Catholic priest who made small rockets to rouse his parishioners for dawn masses.

He imparted the technology to a man in nearby Santa Maria town named Valentin Santa Ana, who mastered the fiery art and passed it on to his children, according to modern fireworks makers.

His descendants led early moves to regulate the industry after a deadly fire hit a factory in 1966 killing 26 people, but their efforts largely went unsupported.

When the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 however, he banned the industry in fear that his political foes and dissidents would turn to readily accessible fireworks raw materials for weapons.

The ban drove the industry underground, where artisans unshackled by regulations began to produce ever more powerful firecrackers that attracted many buyers, said Celso Cruz, president of the industry association.

The ban was lifted only in 1992, by which time Bulacan was already a byword. Annual industry sales now hit 700 million pesos, Cruz said.

Nenita Ramos, of family-owned Nation Fireworks, said she hoped sales would pick up to match previous years despite the tight economy.

"We have had people buying truckloads of fireworks, but now sales are a little slow," Ramos said, as she waited for customers at the family shop along a busy highway.

Still she said, the industry has been the main lifeline of Bulacan.

"We have helped a lot of people over the years. This is not just a business, but a family tradition already," she said.

Since starting the business nearly 20 years ago she and her husband Armando have lived comfortably, sending their three children to expensive schools.

But occasional deadly, accidental explosions at small, unlicensed backyard factories have triggered government crackdowns, and stricter safety standards have driven up costs, she said.