U.S. Marks July Fourth Amid Worries Over Security, Sharks, Wildfires

NEW YORK, July 4 (Reuters) - Millions of Americans on Saturday gathered for Independence Day parades, picnics and hotdog eating competitions, defying worries over possible security threats and the danger of wildfires in the West.

Rainy weather on the East Coast didn't dampen the spirits of celebrants decked out in red, white and blue from their headbands to their shoelaces for traditional July Fourth events from three-legged races to fireworks shows.

"It's important to show American spirit on America's birthday," said Meskie Hyman, 11, who wore a star-spangled shirt and a hairband with two American flags fluttering after she ran a holiday 50-yard dash under cloudy skies in Maplewood, New Jersey.

"I love that it's a free country and we have the right to speak. It lets us see everyone's potential and find our heroes," said Hyman, who listed her champions as singer Taylor Swift, founding father George Washington and her parents.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have issued an alert asking local authorities and the public to remain vigilant for possible threats following recent calls for violence by Islamic State leaders.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered increased monitoring statewide for the holiday weekend under the direction of the New York Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

In New York City, the nation's biggest police force assigned about 7,000 officers and nearly all its counterterrorism personnel to handle security around Independence Day events.

In Coney Island, reigning champion Joey "Jaws" Chestnut sought to defend his title in the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest, where he set a world record in 2013 by gobbling 69 franks. Miki Sudo will seek to hang onto the women's title.

Steady rain pelting Washington, D.C., may deter some of the hundreds of thousands of people expected to line the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for a parade, concerts, and a fireworks display that uses 6,500 shells.

Washington was shaken on Thursday by an unfounded report of gunshots at the Navy Yard military base that drew a heavy law enforcement response. Police Chief Cathy Lanier told reporters police weren on heightened alert for the holiday.

On the U.S. West Coast, which is already battling wildfires, communities in Washington state and Oregon restricted or banned fireworks for fear of more blazes. Cupertino, California, and Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, also canceled firework shows.

Nine people suffered minor injuries at Avon, Colorado's "Salute to the USA" fireworks show on Friday night after a malfunction sent some of the spectacular explosives into the crowd rather than into the sky, town manager Virginia Egger said in a statement.

Revelers on the beaches of North Carolina were warned by the National Park Service to use extra caution after seven shark attacks were recorded in the state by midday Thursday, surpassing the previous high of four in 2014 according to the International Shark Attack File. That won't deter some from the surf, said shark file curator George Burgess.

Celebrations in Texas feature country music legend Willie Nelson, and in Oklahoma, a watermelon seed spitting contest.

Nelson's all-day picnic, held this year at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack outside Austin, typically draws tens of thousands of people for a day of drinking, music and frequently an illegal substance often associated with the Texas musician.

Meanwhile in Oklahoma, the "Watermelon Seed Spittin' World Championship" gets under way in Pauls Valley, about 60 miles (100 km) southeast of Oklahoma City. The record spit to beat is 66 feet, 11 inches (20.41 meters), set in 1989 by Jack Dietz of Chicago, organizers said. (Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, Ian Simpson in Washington and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Eric Walsh/Ruth Pitchford)



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