Council snuffs out consumer fireworks

County Reporter

To some, it signals the end of an era. For others, it’s welcome relief, and long overdue.

The San Juan County Council last week set the stage for a sweeping ban which outlaws the personal use of all consumer fireworks 365 days a year. That means that fountains, snakes, pinwheels and sparklers, like jet skis and obnoxiously loud car stereos, are destined to become a thing of the past.

Currently, fireworks which explode, like firecrackers, or fly into the air, like Roman candles, are prohibited under local law. But the use of so-called “safe and sane” fireworks, like sparklers or ground-spinners, has been allowed, though only on the 4th of July.

Greg Hertel of San Juan Island spoke against the ban and in support of sulfur and “small boys everywhere.” Through handling fireworks, he said, children learn to manage small-scale risks while taking part in a unique activity which is part of a larger, American tradition. He noted a lack of evidence showing that personal fireworks, as opposed to professional shows, have caused significant damage or an abundance of local injuries.

The forthcoming ban was approved by the council June 3 without dissent. It’s pre-programmed to take effect by the time July 4, 2009, rolls around and violators will face a $250 fine. It was backed by the association of local fire chiefs and public safety officials, and it does not apply to licensed and professionally-run pyrotechnic displays, such as Lopez Island’s renown fireworks show, that traditionally highlight local Independence Day celebrations.

San Juan Island Fire Department Chief Steve Maler said the hope is that professional shows will satisfy the appetite for fireworks of islanders and visitors alike. The risks posed by personal use, he said, will only grow as the local population increases and that the enthusiasm for setting off fireworks is hardly universal. “We don’t want to eliminate the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air for people to enjoy,” Maler said. “Our intent is to have licensed places and fireworks displays that everyone can enjoy.”

It’s been a long time since Christopher Hodgkin of San Juan Island recalls a Fourth of July that he enjoyed. He said his neighborhood is under siege more often than not. Those setting off the fireworks are seemingly unfazed by complaints and unconcerned about bothering others, terrorizing pets or wildlife, or the risk of starting a fire. “One person’s rights end when they interfere with another person’s freedoms,” he said. “I think a pre-emptive policy against a dangerous activity is an appropriate step to take.”

According to council Chairman Howie Rosenfeld, Friday Harbor, the islands will be better protected against the possibility of a runaway fire with all types of fireworks under lock and key. Local fire departments are hard-pressed to keep up with the flood of calls that pour in every 4th of July despite the long-standing prohibition on the more powerful types of fireworks, he said.

“We have so much to lose in this county,” said Rosenfeld, a former town fire chief. “Fire, under the right conditions, could burn right across any of our islands.”

Sheriff Bill Cumming said that his department is overwhelmed every 4th of July by hundreds of calls and complaints from people who are “beside themselves” with fear for their pets, themselves, or fire.

Councilman Rich Peterson acknowledged the negative impact fireworks have on pets and wildlife. However, he asked whether an outright ban could be avoided by relying on the fire marshal’s authority to impose a ban when extreme fire conditions prevail. Maler said that “spot prohibitions” are difficult to enforce and the risk of injuries and property damage would still exist.

But San Juan Island’s George Steed believes children face far greater dangers today than fireworks. He calls arguments about dangers to life, limb and property, “nonsense”. He recalls neighborhood block parties in which children learned to set off fireworks, under adult supervision, and family traditions emerging from grand 4th of July celebrations.

“It seems every few years that someone, perhaps a fire chief, comes up with an idea that will leave a new legacy of public safety,” he said. “It’s an easy, tempting accomplishment.”

Maler said the number of injuries and fires caused every year by fireworks might be significantly reduced if adults were providing proper supervision. “But that’s not always the case,” he said.