What would the Fourth of July be without a few sparklers or a firecracker or two to celebrate with?
Islanders may soon find out — if not this year – then perhaps the next.
Heeding concerns raised by the association of local fire chiefs, the San Juan County Council last week asked for an ordinance to be crafted which would ban the use of all “consumer” fireworks and that it be prepared for a public hearing. The date has yet to be determined.
So-called consumer fireworks include those considered “safe and sane” and, as a result, sparklers, snakes and ground spinners, along with pinwheels, fountains and smoke balls, would be prohibited. Those that explode or fly into the air, like Roman candles or firecrackers, are already illegal under local law but the safe-and-sane kind are allowed on July 4.
“Our biggest concern is fire, given the nature of the islands,” association president and San Juan Island Fire Chief Steve Marler said. “But the overarching issue is danger to life and limb.”
The ban would not include traditional fireworks displays operated by professional pyrotechnics, which require permits.
Marler said that while there are no “horror stories” in the islands to date, they are plentiful nationwide. In Washington state, he noted that there are 117 jurisdictions – cities or counties – wherein consumer fireworks are either restricted or prohibited outright and that a local ban would be a “proactive rather than a reactive” measure.
Though supportive of the association’s concerns, council members expect the proposal to produce some fireworks of its own. Councilman Rich Peterson, North San Juan, believes many islanders will applaud but others will be incensed by legislation which makes the use of sparklers illegal.
“There’s clearly a lot of people who are going to be delighted by this,” he said. “But then there’s going to be a whole lot of people who will be disappointed.”
Councilmen Kevin Ranker, South San Juan, and Gene Knapp, Orcas East, expressed support for the reasons for such legislation. However, they agreed the public must have ample opportunity to weigh in on the proposal.
“I think we need considerably more public input on this,” Ranker said. “But we are beyond the risks for fires in this county.”
Knapp added, “I think it would be more acceptable if people have an opportunity to speak out on it.”
Councilman Alan Lichter, Orcas West, called on the association, an umbrella group that includes the islands’ emergency medical services and the Sheriff’s department, to supply statistics which would bolster the case for such a ban.
County Fire Marshall Bob Low, citing a 2003 study, said that safe and sane fireworks were responsible for 1,000 fires that year and 1,300 injuries statewide. The majority of injuries involved children 15 years of age or younger and that it’s hands, eyes and faces which are the parts of the body most often injured, Low said.
“Having 1,000 fires is unusual and 1,300 injuries is uncalled for,” said Low, adding that the heat at which sparklers burn is 2,000 degrees fahrenheit.
Currently, anyone caught shooting off illegal fireworks – a misdemeanor offense – faces criminal penalties and a fine ranging from $200-$660. The Sheriff’s department received 40 complaints about illegal fireworks last year but made no arrests, according to its 2007 Year End report.
Undersheriff Jon Zerby said the department is overmatched by the number of calls and complaints that pour in each Fourth of July. Officers try to determine which are the most severe and tackle those first. In general, he said, most infractions are resolved with a warning.
But as a deterrent, Zerby believes that a ban on all consumer fireworks would reduce the potential of both fire and injuries. He noted that the Roman candle wars, which had become commonplace among guests at Roche Harbor Resort, were nearly non-existent last year after the resort made it widely known that the use of illegal fireworks would not be tolerated.
If approved, Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord said it would take time for the ban to sink in and before wide-spread compliance becomes the norm. He said that warnings, enforcement and education should combine over time in helping change the habits of visitors and islanders alike.
“You can expect it’ll take several years to bring people into compliance,” Gaylord said.