Debate over personal fireworks continues

King County Councilmember Joe McDermott supports ban

The crowd-pleasing public fireworks show which islanders fund each year, will not be subject to the proposed ban on private fireworks (Steve Tosterud Photo).

The crowd-pleasing public fireworks show which islanders fund each year, will not be subject to the proposed ban on private fireworks (Steve Tosterud Photo).

The July 4 holiday passed without major incident on Vashon, but the conversation about banning private fireworks is continuing as representatives on both sides of the debate plan to take additional action in the coming weeks.

In the month preceding the holiday, a small group of islanders, led by Ron Smothermon and Angie Meier, banded together in the hopes of banning the devices as early as next year. They circulated a petition to do so, garnering some 1,500 signatures in the process. Those signatures will be delivered to the King County Council on July 15. Similarly, at their June 26 meeting, the majority of the island’s fire commissioners agreed to send a letter to county and state-elected officials, asking them to ban the devices on the island.

These steps toward a potential ban have drawn criticism from several other islanders, including Tom Carr, who started a petition to keep personal fireworks legal; at press time, it had nearly 200 signatures. The topic has also engaged Gabriel Felix, who has operated the fireworks stand on the island for 12 years as part of his business, Vashon Fireworks Company. He, too, created a petition to keep fireworks legal, which he and his employees invited people to sign at the fireworks stand. After the holiday, Felix said he had not yet tallied the signatures, but expected that hundreds of people signed that petition as well. He plans to meet with King County Council Chair Joe McDermott to discuss this issue later this month.

On Monday, McDermott said he is in favor of banning personal fireworks.

“I support banning the sale and discharge of fireworks in unincorporated King County,” he said in an email. “I have talked with a number of Vashon residents this year who make a compelling case about risks of fires and wildfire during our dry summers. Incidents this year in both North Highline and Skyway make the risks even more clear.”

McDermott added that he will work with his colleagues in the coming months to enact a ban, which would not affect professional firework shows. Those would still be allowed.

Between the two sides of the debate, the conversation — sometimes harmonious, sometimes acrimonious — has touched on a wide range of issues: respect for animals, veterans and others who are severely bothered by noise; climate change; pollution; the risk of wildfire and the limitations of the local fire department. Tradition and patriotism are also central themes, as is Vashon’s limited law enforcement capability to enforce a change in the laws. The possibility that a ban, like prohibition, could backfire and make the situation worse has also figured in.

The current law allows personal fireworks between 9 a.m. and midnight on July 4 on Vashon, but it is common to hear personal fireworks well outside that legal window, further fueling the debate.

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) board Chair Brigitte Schran Brown said she and her fellow commissioners had an undercurrent of worry about fireworks this year, particularly given last year’s large fires in California. But community concern brought the issue to the forefront. She cited hot, dry summer weather conditions and the island’s limited firefighting ability among the commissioners’ top concerns. Brown is a fan of fireworks, she said, and has great respect for Felix and how he operates his business. But she feels a ban would be best for the fire district and the island in the long term.

“This is not an easy topic. All of us feel very heavy-hearted, but the abuses of some people ruin it for everyone,” she said last week. “Our job is to uphold our mission: to protect this island — people, property and our environment.”

Felix, an engineer who designs heart monitors when he is not following his passion for pyrotechnic art, attended the recent fire commissioners’ meeting and provided the commissioners with an analysis for keeping fireworks legal. Among his points is that a previous prohibition on personal fireworks led to more injuries as people turned to products that were less safe; that previously, VIFR participated in effective fireworks safety programs that should be reinstated and that the current law already enables government officials to ban fireworks if the season is too dry to use them safely. Felix also said that he has worked hard to provide quiet fireworks at his stand — and if that business must shut down, the quiet alternatives will no longer be readily available.

“There is a delicate balance between doing too much and doing too little when it comes to fireworks regulation,” he wrote.

The division about this topic also exists among fire department leadership. Commissioner David Hoffmann has stated he intended to remain neutral, and Chief Charlie Krimmert said he is neutral as well, noting that he understands arguments on both sides. Last week, Krimmert corrected a previous Beachcomber story that said he was supportive of the banning effort. He noted that in the last 10 years, fireworks were responsible for 10 percent of the district’s wildland fire calls and less than .5 percent of all its fire calls. Krimmert added that he worries more about fireworks-related injuries than fire.

Acknowledging the differences of opinion, Brown said commissioners would like to ban just some types of personal fireworks and not all of them, but such a restriction would be impossible to enforce. She added that the fire department has responded to many serious fireworks-related events over the years: fires, severe injuries and dog rescues in steep ravines.

“I cannot justify the damage that has been done and that could potentially be done,” she said.

Brown, along with Meier and Smothermon, discussed climate change and the fact that recent springs/early summers have been atypically dry and hot — a trend they expect to continue.

“We are an island of forests and fields and open spaces and people with shingles on their roofs,” Brown said. “It is not worth the risk.”

But others, including Felix, question if climate change will mean that the island is consistently dry by the Fourth of July. Predictions for the Pacific Northwest show a mixed picture. King County’s Laura Whitely Binder, a climate preparedness specialist, said research indicates this region will experience wetter winters and drier and hotter summers. Spring and fall are also expected to be wetter than in the past, she said, although predictions for the shoulder seasons are more difficult to make. Also, she said, while summers are expected to be hotter and drier, there will still be natural variability from year to year.

If this region sees a lot of dry summers, Felix said he agrees that personal fireworks should be banned. But until then, he said he believes that with education, islanders will moderate themselves. He noted that his sales were down 50 percent in a recent dry year, which he termed “fantastic” and a sign people were making responsible decisions.

“I prefer to allow people to be enabled and make responsible decisions rather than to ban them and force them into decisions unless it is a last resort,” he said.

He added that he would like the conversation about fireworks to be opened to more members of the community and involve his business directly.

“We would like to be part of the larger discussion. We feel things are happening around us. Because we are a community-oriented business and not your traditional corporation, we would like to understand people’s concerns and work together with the community to try to alleviate some of those concerns in an effective manner,” he said.

To change fireworks laws for Vashon and other unincorporated areas, the full King County Council would need to pass a new ordinance, and Executive Dow Constantine would have to sign it. State law dictates that such a ban would require a one-year waiting period before it could take effect.

The three petitions are all available on change.org. Search for “Vashon fireworks.” Paper copies of the petition to ban fireworks, which will close on July 14, are available at Pandora’s Box, Fair Isle, Vashon Print & Design and the Vashon Senior Center.

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