Last Thursday, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott introduced legislation that would ban all fireworks in unincorporated King County.
McDermott cited a deadly fire in White Center last year as one reason for drafting his bill, in addition to concerns from islanders about the possibility of wildfires sparked by fireworks on Vashon as unseasonably dryer summers set in annually. The legislation was referred to committee at the next full council meeting on Tuesday, at press time.
In an interview with The Beachcomber, McDermott noted that White Center is bordered by Burien and Seattle, both of which prohibit the purchase and use of fireworks without a permit. He acknowledged that those living in the 25 jurisdictions in King County with bans in place are no strangers to fireworks during the holiday season, but that a ban extending to unincorporated areas would be better for those communities.
“The amount of fireworks discharged in White Center is exponential to the neighborhoods around it in part because people from neighboring communities can go to White Center and discharge and people who live in White Center can discharge. But if you live in Burien and Seattle, of course, you still hear fireworks on the Fourth of July,” said McDermott, adding that his bill would make enforcement clear, applying to all types of fireworks including sparklers and other “safe” options.
“It’s really about a public safety and public health approach, and education is a key component about that and building a new expectation,” he said.
McDermott’s legislation would not ban properly permitted fireworks displays or impact fireworks on tribal trust lands. It would establish violations of the ban where enforced as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. And each day that an individual violated the regulation would be considered a separate offense.
McDermott said that he feels strongly about the legislation and noted that constituents have raised the subject with him repeatedly since his first days on the council, though he has not found political support in the past to take a ban on. McDermott has never introduced legislation for a fireworks ban before and he said this is the first time since he has been on the council that a ban in unincorporated areas has been proposed. He added that he is continuing to have conversations with colleagues to garner support for the legislation and that many of them have been encouraging and productive.
In a press release announcing the legislation, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht endorsed the bill as a necessary step given dense populations and dryer summers, as did Chris Ricketts, King County Fire Marshal, who said that consumer fireworks are a leading cause of both injuries and property losses each summer. In the press release, Vashon Fire and Rescue District Commissioner Brigitte Schran-Brown said that the VIFR board feels the ban has become necessary due to climate change.
“We see fireworks-related brush and house fires on the island, and each year we treat at least one significant fireworks-related injury, such as finger amputations,” she said, adding the amount of trash that fireworks discharges leaves behind. “In short, to uphold our Mission Statement of protecting our island, our people, property and environment, we feel that banning fireworks has become necessary. We support Councilmember McDermott’s proposed legislation,” Schran-Brown said.
McDermott echoed the fear of islanders over wildfires.
“In advance of the fourth of July last year I heard loud and clear from islanders who were concerned about wildfires given the dry summer we had last summer and with climate change that will continue to be the case,” he said, noting the death of a 70-year-old man in a house fire in White Center last year that was caused by fireworks. “It’s time to act.”
Derek Churchill, a forest health scientist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources who has lived on Vashon for 20 years, said that general fire risk stems from fuel moisture and wind. The forest has to be dry enough to burn, and for a fire to turn into a major threat, it needs strong wind.
“In terms of fireworks and the Fourth of July … looking back in time, our forests really aren’t dried out by the Fourth of July. While certainly there’s always a risk of fire, it’s late in summer, August to September when things are especially dry,” he said. “If you throw that wind in the mix you could have a real problem.”
He noted that over the last three to four years the region has had drier summers and that a dry month of May or June could mean especially dry conditions in July and amplify fire risk.
Churchill recommended that homeowners who may be concerned about fire risk at their property seek guidance from experts at the King County Forestry Program, who hosted a series of forest health and wildfire seminars last winter, as well as the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which works with local fire districts, counties and extension programs to help Washington residents benefit from the Firewise USA program. The program encourages residents to organize their own board or committee joined by local fire department and elected officials to identify vulnerable sites in their community to wildfire, obtain a written wildfire risk assessment from their state forestry agency or fire department, and develop an action plan to reduce risk.
Churchill said that the yearly risk of wildfire in western Washington is low. But he said it’s never a bad thing to be prepared.
“I tell people if this is something that really worries you and makes it hard for you to enjoy your house in the summer and relax, look into Firewise, remove some vegetation around your house, and that’s just going to make it easier for firefighters to protect your house,” he said.
For more information about the Firewise program, visit online.