Opinion

San Juan County voters will decide whether to ban safe-and-sane fireworks | November ballot measures

For the second time in three years, voters will decide the fate of countywide legislation.

Approved by the San Juan County Council in June 2008, an ordinance that would make it illegal to use any and all types of so-called consumer fireworks — including those labeled "safe and sane," such as fountains, snakes, pinwheels and sparklers — remains in limbo pending the outcome of the Nov. 3 general election.

The referendum asks voters to accept or reject the ordinance.

That ordinance, endorsed without dissent by the County Council, had been slated to take effect prior to this year's Fourth of July celebration. It was put on hold, however, after opponents collected enough signatures to put a referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot. It's the second referendum to make its way to an election ballot since the county charter went into effect four years ago.

Voters gained the right to create and to reject local legislation through the process of initiative or referendum when they adopted the charter. They rejected by an overwhelming margin — 62 percent — a set of fees designed to pay for stormwater improvements in the first-ever countywide referendum in 2007.

Blakely Island's Don Burkhart, founder of Fireworks Unrestricted, which has led the challenge against the proposed ban, believes the referendum's success or failure may well depend on the size of the voter turnout. He fears the turnout could be relatively small because, unlike last year, voters will not be selecting between presidential candidates and, unlike stormwater fees, most people do not consider fireworks to be a "pocketbook issue."

Voter turnout was 62 percent in the 2007 general election, compared to 92 percent in the presidential election of a year ago.

"I'd rather have more people showing up for the election than not," Burkhart said. "Overall, I do have a sense of optimism but I can't really say why that is."

Currently, local law prohibits the use of fireworks which explode, like firecrackers, or fly into the air, like Roman candles. The use of "safe and sane" fireworks, like sparklers or ground spinners, has been allowed, though only on the Fourth of July.

Professionally licensed pyrotechnic displays would be exempt from the legislation, which would make the use of any type of fireworks a civil infraction, like a traffic ticket, and subject to a $250 fine.

The ordinance that bans all consumer fireworks was adopted by the council at the urging of the local Fire Chiefs Association. San Juan Island Fire Chief Steve Marler said that the association, which includes the county sheriff, backs the more-stringent ban as a "proactive" step and because it would also make enforcement easier than trying to enforce what's on the books today. Deputies, he said, are often hard-pressed in their ability to determine the type of fireworks used at the scene of a possible infraction.

Statistically, Marler said, the number of injuries and fires caused each year by fireworks are far more alarming across the nation and the state than in the San Juans. He noted, however, that such incidents generally rise as population and density increases, and that a similar pattern can be expected in the islands. Children are most likely to suffer a fireworks-related injury, according to national statistics.

"Most of the arguments in favor of the ban from a safety point of view are based on incidents that have happened elsewhere, thankfully," Marler said. "As an association, we see the hazard and we're trying to be proactive."

Ironically, most recent July 4 fires were caused by commercial pyrotechnic displays.

In 2003, an embankment caught fire at Deer Harbor after a commercial fireworks misfire. In 2004, the Fourth of July fireworks show on Lopez Island was ended when errant sparks touched off a fire in a nearby field.

In 1971, Robert Tangney of Roche Harbor died from injuries sustained in an accident while operating the fireworks display at Roche Harbor.

At Oct. 13 candidates forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, Marler said most fire safety laws have been spurred by tragedies. He said the proposed fireworks ban is an "opportunity to be proactive."

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