County Council snuffs out personal fireworks

To some, it signals the end of an era.

Ban takes effect in 2009; violators face $250 fine

To some, it signals the end of an era.

For others, it’s welcome relief and long overdue.

The San Juan County Council last week set the stage for a sweeping ban on personal use of all consumer fireworks 365 days a year. That means that fountains, snakes, pinwheels and sparklers — like Jet Skis and obnoxiously loud car stereos — are destined to become a thing of the past.

Currently, fireworks which explode, like firecrackers, or fly into the air, like Roman candles, are prohibited under local law. But the use of so-called “safe and sane” fireworks, like sparklers or ground-spinners, has been allowed, though only on the Fourth of July.

Greg Hertel of San Juan Island spoke against the ban and in support of “small boys everywhere.” Through handling fireworks, he said, children learn to manage small-scale risks while taking part in a unique activity which is part of a larger, American tradition.

Hertel said there’s a lack of evidence that personal fireworks, as opposed to professional shows, have caused significant damage or an abundance of local injuries. Furthermore, he said, the council would protect the public more effectively by banning alcohol or underwater diving rather than fireworks.

“Why not a ban on scuba diving?,” he said. “We lose a diver or two every year but I don’t see that being proposed.”

The forthcoming ban was approved by the council June 3 without dissent. It’s pre-programmed to take effect by the time July 4, 2009, rolls around and violators will face a $250 fine.

The ban was backed by the association of local fire chiefs and public safety officials. It does not apply to licensed and professionally-run pyrotechnic displays, such as Friday Harbor and Lopez Island’s renowned fireworks shows.

San Juan Island Fire Chief Steve Marler said he hopes that professional shows will satisfy the appetite for fireworks. The risks posed by personal use, he said, will only grow as the local population increases and that the enthusiasm for setting off fireworks is hardly universal.

“We don’t want to eliminate the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air for people to enjoy,” Marler said. “Our intent is to have licensed places and fireworks displays that everyone can enjoy.”

It’s been a long time since Christopher Hodgkin of San Juan Island recalls a Fourth of July that he enjoyed. He said his neighborhood is under siege more often than not. Those setting off fireworks are seemingly unfazed by complaints and unconcerned about bothering others, terrorizing pets or wildlife, or the risk of starting a fire.

“One person’s rights end when they interfere with another person’s freedoms,” he said. “I think a pre-emptive policy against a dangerous activity is an appropriate step to take.”

According to Council Chairman Howie Rosenfeld, the islands will be better protected against the possibility of a runaway fire with all types of fireworks under lock and key. Local fire departments are hard-pressed to keep up with the flood of calls that pour in every Fourth of July despite the long-standing prohibition on the more powerful types of fireworks, he said.

“We have so much to lose in this county,” said Rosenfeld, a former town fire chief. “Fire, under the right conditions, could burn right across any of our islands.”

Sheriff Bill Cumming said his department is overwhelmed every Fourth of July by hundreds of complaints from people who are “beside themselves” with fear for their pets and themselves.

Councilman Rich Peterson, San Juan North, acknowledged the negative impact fireworks have on pets and wildlife. However, he asked whether an outright ban could be avoided by relying on the fire marshal’s authority to impose a ban when extreme fire conditions prevail.

Marler said “spot prohibitions” are difficult to enforce and the risk of injuries and property damage would still exist.

In 2005, the National Fire Prevention Association estimated that 10,800 people were treated for fireworks-related injuries in emergency rooms nationwide. Of those, 44 percent were treated for head injuries while 30 percent suffered injuries to a hand or fingers, according to the NFPA.

But San Juan Island’s George Steed believes children face far greater dangers today than fireworks. He calls arguments about dangers to life, limb and property “nonsense.” He recalls neighborhood block parties in which children learned to set off fireworks under adult supervision. He remembers and family traditions emerging from grand Fourth of July celebrations.

“It seems every few years that someone, perhaps a fire chief, comes up with an idea that will leave a new legacy of public safety,” he said. “It’s an easy, tempting accomplishment.”

Marler said the number of injuries and fires caused every year by fireworks might be significantly reduced if adults were providing proper supervision.

“But that’s not always the case,” he said. “The sad reality is (unsupervised) is how they’re being used today across the country and in this county.”