San Juan County voters will decide, again, whether to ban 'safe and sane' fireworks

— This version corrects the date of the first referendum on the fireworks ban. The year was 2009.

For the second time in two years, San Juan County voters will be asked to decide whether to ban the use of all personal fireworks, specifically those considered “safe and sane,” which include fountains, pinwheels and sparklers.

If you’re among those who thought this issue had already been put to rest, that’s understandable. After all, voters in 2009 upheld a ban by a 535-vote margin which made safe and sane fireworks as illegal to use as the more explosive kinds, and subject to a $250 fine for a first offense.

So on the eve of the Nov. 2 election, here’s a refresher to bring voters back up to speed.

In June 2008, the County Council voted without dissent to ban the use of safe and sane fireworks at the behest of a countywide committee of public safety officials that includes the sheriff.

The law, which was to take effect by July 4, 2009, was put on hold after opponents, led by Blakely Island-based Fireworks Unrestricted, collected enough signatures to challenge it at the ballot box.

Voters approved the ban, but the ban was overturned by Superior Court Judge Don Eaton after the ballot measure describing the referendum prompted a legal challenge by Don Burkhart of Fireworks Unrestricted.

In his ruling, Eaton determined county officials failed to notify Burkhart of changes they made to the referendum’s ballot title as required by state law, and that it must go back before the voters.

Burkhart contends changes to the ballot title led to voter confusion. He believes eliminating that confusion is the key to quashing the ban.

Burkhart said the group has simplified its message — “Reject the Ban” — and that he and supporters have been canvassing the community and had a booth at the San Juan County Fair to educate voters.

“We’ve been desperately trying to make it clear so people know which vote results in which outcome,” he said.

Burkhart said dangerous fireworks — like firecrackers, which explode, and Roman candles, which fly into the air — are already prohibited countywide.

But Sheriff Bill Cumming said the ban on “safe and sane” fireworks is backed by the local chiefs association as a “step in the right direction” for public safety. Cumming said an all-out ban on fireworks is becoming more common among cities and counties.

“It seems to be the trend in public safety to recognize the overall problems associated with fireworks,” he said. “Problems like personal safety and fire and the threat to the environment. On the days leading up to the Fourth of July, on the 4th and on the days after, we do get a number of calls. We’re very busy. People call to complain about the noise, about livestock and about their animals’ reaction that accompany those fireworks.”

As it exists today, local law prohibits the use of fireworks which explode or fly into the air. The use of so-called “safe and sane” fireworks has been allowed, though only on the Fourth of July. The ban on safe and sane fireworks does not apply to professionally-licensed pyrotechnic displays, which require a permit.

Cumming said the ban on safe and sane fireworks will help to enforce the law already on the books. Officers can find it difficult to distinguish between various types of fireworks while at the scene of a potential violation.

Burkhart believes an all-out ban is too steep a price to pay for making enforcement easier.

“Are there some problems?” he said. “Yes, there are, but almost exclusively with fireworks that are already illegal by state law. Acting on that by banning safe and sane fireworks is throwing the baby out with the bath water, and leaves us with the inherent contradiction of the need for a government-issued permit to celebrate our freedom.”

Pro & con
— What supporters of the ban say: Safe and sane fireworks are a fire risk, and a threat to personal safety and the environment.

— What opponents of the ban say: The ban is an unnecessary encroachment on personal freedom.

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