Given this year’s record-dry and hot conditions, some people are trying to persuade county and state officials to ban the discharge of fireworks this year. But officials say it’s not that easy.
Every year come Independence Day, Skyway residents Bill and Sonja Bowden spend their holiday bracing for disaster, as their neighborhood seemingly transforms into a war zone.
“In Skyway on the Fourth of July, it’s impossible to tell the difference between a holiday celebration and a battlefield,” Bill Bowden said.
As densely urban as Skyway is, the community remains part of unincorporated King County, where it’s legal to discharge fireworks on Independence Day.
For a list of local rules on fireworks sales and discharges go to:
Meanwhile, the three cities that surround it — Seattle, Tukwila and Renton — all have all-out fireworks bans in place.
“People come from those areas to our neighborhood to shoot off fireworks,” Bill Bowden said. “So, I get to spend my Fourth staying home to guard my house and make sure no one sets it on fire.”
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But given this year’s record-dry and hot conditions, and fires already burning across the state, Sonja Bowden set out to change that. An online petition she started last week that sought King County Executive Dow Constantine to enact an emergency ban on fireworks had garnered nearly 400 signatures as of Monday afternoon. After Constantine’s office informed her the county wasn’t authorized to enact an emergency ban, Sonja Bowden started another petition aimed at Gov. Jay Inslee.
“It’s become a political hot potato,” said Bill Bowden. “No one really wants to touch it. But this has really been a longtime concern for our community. And this year, it is particularly pointed because of the drought conditions.”
King County officials say they understand the concerns. But the way state law works, the county can’t immediately ban people from shooting off fireworks in an area that legally allows it, said Jim Chan, deputy director for the county permitting department.
Before any such ban could be imposed, the county would first have to adopt prohibition language into code for a year before implementation, he said.
“That gives proper notice to all the vendors and people in the industry that already have put up bonds, bought insurance and inventory, and put up fireworks stands,” Chan said.
Constantine is willing to look at the issue for next year, Chan added.
“But unfortunately, his hands are tied for this year.”
In Washington, just two jurisdictions — Douglas and San Juan counties — have adopted code language allowing local fire marshals to restrict fireworks sales due to extreme fire dangers. On Monday, Douglas County exercised that authority, imposing a ban on fireworks in the county’s unincorporated areas through the July 4 holiday.
“Anything that we can do to eliminate sources of ignition, I want to do,” Douglas County Fire Dist. 2 Chief Dave Baker said Tuesday. “Part of this is really getting the public to understand that during these conditions at this time, it’s not a good idea to put any fire on the ground.”
Neither the state fire marshal nor local jurisdictions can impose emergency bans on fireworks, added Deputy State Fire Marshal Lysandra Davis.
“The only one who has authority to do that is the governor’s office,” she added.
But a spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee said the issue isn’t black and white.
“The authority is somewhat unclear,” said Inslee spokesman David Postman.
Washington’s fireworks law largely leaves regulation up to the state, which sets dates in statute for when fireworks can be legally sold and discharged. For Independence Day, legal fireworks sales and use began on June 28 and will run through July 5.
Under the state law, cities and counties can also adopt their own fireworks laws, so long as they aren’t more liberal than the state law. Across Washington, about 175 counties and cities have since imposed stricter laws or bans on fireworks. Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma and Bellevue all now prohibit them, but many jurisdictions — including smaller cities, towns and more rural counties — continue to allow fireworks to varying extent.
Any jurisdiction adopting a more restrictive fireworks law “shall have an effective date no sooner than one year after their adoption,” state law says. But another statute also generally allows the governor to issue emergency proclamations related to a “disaster.”
“We did look at the question and are continuing to review this,” Postman said in an email on Monday. “The state is taking a lot of actions to try to reduce fire dangers, including asking people to restrict fireworks. But we are not using a ban at this point.”
Meanwhile, forecasters say there’s no relief in sight for Washington’s hot and dry conditions.
This past winter’s snow drought in the Cascades, combined with a record-hot and dry June, has conspired to create tinder-dry conditions statewide, said Jay Albrecht, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Seattle.
“It’s just exceptionally dangerous,” Albrecht said. “It looks like it could be the end of August right now, and we’re not even out of June.”
As dangerous as they can be, fireworks aren’t the primary culprit for wildland fires, such as the Sleepy Hollow fire that has consumed more than two dozen homes near Wenatchee. Fireworks have accounted for about 150 of Washington’s 3,000 reported wildland fires over the past five years, Davis said. Most wildland fires are sparked by lightning and dry conditions, she added.
Still, fireworks do their share of damage. Last year, they accounted for 277 reported injuries across Washington — up 27 percent from the previous year. Fireworks also caused at least 155 fires resulting in more than $320,000 of damage and resulted in two fatalities in 2014, State Fire Marshal Charles Duffy reported.
Like other officials, Duffy encourages Washington residents this year to see a public fireworks display rather than setting off their own fireworks. If people insist on setting off their own displays, Duffy’s office has compiled safety tips, laws and public displays on his website at http://www.wsp.wa.gov/fire/fireworks.htm.