Washington Gov. Jay Inslee can declare a statewide emergency, suspend the death penalty, even call up the National Guard, but when it comes to banning fireworks, the governor says his hands are tied.
He can declare a statewide emergency, suspend the death penalty, even call up the National Guard in certain situations, but when it comes to banning fireworks, Gov. Jay Inslee says his hands are tied.
Given the record-setting hot and dry conditions across the state as the Independence Day holiday approaches — and with wildfires scorching Eastern Washington — Inslee’s office has received “numerous inquiries about the possibility of a statewide fireworks ban,” the governor said in a press statement Thursday.
And so, Inslee said he took the issue to his attorneys.
“I asked our legal team to look into our options, and it does not appear that I have the authority to initiate such a ban,” Inslee said. “Existing state law limits my authority in this area.”
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Inslee’s office points out that, according to the Revised Code of Washington, once the governor proclaims an emergency — as he did last month due to wildfire dangers — the law provides a specific list of activities the governor is authorized to prohibit.
Among other things, the list includes closing down certain streets or highways, banning the sale of alcohol, even limiting a citizen’s firearms rights outside of his or her home or business.
“But fireworks isn’t on that list,” Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said Thursday.
And so, Inslee won’t be banning fireworks this Fourth of July, Smith noted. Instead, the governor’s statement said he’s “urging residents to do all they can to keep themselves and their neighbors safe this 4th of July.”
Some Washingtonians say that’s not enough.
“People are really scared this year,” said Sonja Bowden, who recently launched an online petition seeking an emergency statewide fireworks ban. “There’s a lot of disappointment that our government is not protecting public safety.”
Bowden’s community of Skyway, a densely urban but unincorporated area in King County, allows fireworks to be shot off on July 4. In turn, Skyway has become a hot-spot for fireworks on the Fourth of July, some residents say, as people from neighboring Seattle, Renton and Tukwila — all of which ban fireworks — converge on the community to light fireworks.
Fearing for her own home’s safety, Bowden started a petition to King County Executive Dow Constantine. After county officials informed her that under state law, the county first had to adopt language in its code a year before imposing a fireworks ban, Bowden crafted a new petition aimed at Inslee.
“Execute your authority as governor to declare an immediate, statewide emergency ban on use of consumer fireworks,” the petition prompts Inslee.
As of Thursday afternoon, more than 900 people had signed it.
The issue gathered momentum after Inslee issued an emergency proclamation late last month to activate additional resources to help prevent and contain wildfires while the state’s Department of Natural Resources imposed a burn ban on state lands.
During a drought in 2012, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire proclaimed a similar emergency burn ban statewide that specifically prohibited the use of fireworks on state lands.
DNR’s current burn ban prohibits “all outdoor burning,” but doesn’t explicitly mention fireworks. The department’s website points out that it’s already “illegal to discharge fireworks on DNR-protected lands,” however.
Throughout the week, Inslee’s aides have said the governor was reviewing the possibility of an emergency ban, but he wasn’t sure he had authority to impose one.
Meanwhile, the State Fire Marshal’s Office repeatedly said this week Inslee was the only official in Washington empowered to order an immediate fireworks ban.
Even the list to which Inslee’s spokeswoman referred on Thursday appears, without explicitly using the term “fireworks,” to offer an opening for such a ban:
During a declared emergency, the governor can prohibit “the manufacture, transfer, use, possession or transportation of a Molotov cocktail or any other device, instrument or object designed to explode or produce uncontained combustion,” the law states.
However, Smith said a separate Washington statute specifically regulating fireworks further constrains the governor’s authority.
To clarify the issue, Smith said, legislators should either grant the governor explicitly ability to regulate fireworks or provide a clearer path for local governments to adopt emergency restrictions.
Washington state law generally allows fireworks to be sold and discharged from June 28 through July 5. The law also allows local jurisdictions to adopt their own tougher restrictions.
More than 175 towns, cities and counties have since implemented local laws that either limit or outright ban fireworks. Before any such restrictions can be imposed, however, individual jurisdictions must adopt language in their code a year in advance of implementing any ban or restriction.
During Inslee’s legal review, some communities have taken their own action. Douglas County, one of two jurisdictions statewide that already has code language allowing for emergency prohibition on fireworks, exercised that ban.
And earlier this week, Chelan County found enough wiggle room in its code to essentially prohibit fireworks even though that jurisdiction legally can’t order an emergency ban.
On Tuesday, the Chelan County Commission designated the entire county a “hazardous fire area.” That three-month designation, in turn, triggered a provision in the county’s existing fireworks restrictions that prohibits shooting fireworks in hazardous fire areas. The move essentially means there’s nowhere in unincorporated Chelan County where it’s currently legal to shoot off fireworks through September.
“We don’t have the language in our code that would allow us to do a (emergency) ban, so that’s why we’re going this route,” Commissioner Keith Goehner said Wednesday. “We kind of came at it through the back door.”
Before taking their action, Chelan commissioners wondered if Inslee would impose a ban, Goehner added.
“We felt we … couldn’t wait to see whether or not the governor would,” he said.