The heat wave might be over, but Washington state and local officials are sweating over July 4 weekend fireworks celebrations that could spark even more trouble for Seattle and the entire state.
Officials are urging residents to refrain from using fireworks this weekend as a historic dry period leaves Washington’s forests even more vulnerable to wildfires than usual.
“Our forests, our grasslands and sage lands are very dry and literally like tinder,” said state Public Lands Commission Hilary Franz, who runs the state Department of Natural Resources. “All it takes is one spark.”
Between the risk of starting a fire, potential fireworks-related injuries and concern for veterans and those with sensitivity to explosions, fire departments and state officials all agree: this year, it’s just not worth it.
Fireworks are already illegal in Seattle and most cities in King County. A ban on fireworks in unincorporated King County was passed in April and will go into effect next year. A burn ban is also currently in effect in unincorporated King County, which prohibits all outdoor fires except barbecues and small recreational fires in established fire pits.
“This year, given the recent heat and dry conditions, we’re all on high alert,” King County spokesperson Brent Champaco said. “If you can avoid [using fireworks] at all costs, please do.”
The extreme weather this summer has only made things worse as wildfire season begins. Monday’s record-shattering heat wave and droughtlike conditions across the Pacific Northwest — “some of the worst Washington state’s ever had,” Franz said — have combined to leave vegetation bone dry.
According to Franz, the DNR has already responded to 564 fires in 2021, more than double the 10-year average for fires up to this point in the year.
“We’re in for a very long, hard wildfire season, likely worse than what we experienced last year,” Franz said.
Officials in Seattle are concerned, too. There were 16 fireworks-related fires in Seattle in 2020, according to Seattle Fire Department spokesperson Kristin Tinsley. Fireworks-related fires across the state last year caused $1.3 million in property damage. There’s also the distress that fireworks can cause for people with post-traumatic stress disorder and animals.
“We also want to be thinking about our veterans during this time and those that may have PTSD, and the impact that fireworks can have on them … and also our pets,” Tinsley said. “Yes, fireworks can be fun, but they’re incredibly dangerous, and they can have bad impacts on your neighbors and those around you.”
Doctors also warned of the injuries that fireworks can cause, particularly for young children. According to a 2020 report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, fireworks caused an estimated 10,000 injuries in 2019, around a third of which were sustained by children younger than 15.
“We see across the region, just tragic injuries that had to do with loss of fingers in the hands of kids collecting fireworks afterwards,” said Dr. Beth Ebel, a pediatrician and director of the Harborview Injury Prevention Research Center in Seattle. “We’ve had some terrible burn injuries when a small child’s clothes or stroller caught on fire when it was struck by a bottle rocket.”
Despite officials’ warnings, fireworks sellers are still reporting high demand. Suquamish fireworks store Bennie’s Jets Fireworks had its busiest year in 2020 and is seeing more of the same this year.
“The 30th of June and yesterday were the busiest days we’ve ever had,” Madison Cordero, who works at the store, said Friday. “I think on the Fourth it’s going to be super crazy.”
Setting off fireworks will only be permitted on July 4 between 9 a.m. and midnight in unincorporated parts of King County, for one last year. Fireworks users should only set them off outdoors, away from buildings, houses with wood exteriors, trees or dry fields, according to King County. Used fireworks should be soaked in water before disposing of them.
Over the July 4 weekend, residents should report illegal fireworks at the nonemergency line, 206-625-5011, and leave 911 open for life-threatening emergencies only, Tinsley added.
Correction: An initial version of this story gave an inaccurate description of the monetary damage caused by fireworks-related fires in 2020. The fires caused $1.3 million in damage statewide, not $1.5 million in Seattle.