Council to review policy on fireworks

One councilor wants ban on personal usage after outcry

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As the last fuses fizzle for this Fourth of July fireworks season, the tensions over their use remain explosive.

Initial reports from local law enforcement show that fires and injuries related to fireworks were fairly minimal this year, with only one reported structure fire — caused by smoking fireworks put in a paper bag next to a home.

But Vancouver city councilors said they’ve received enough distressed emails and calls from citizens to warrant a review of their policy.

At least one councilor, Pat Campbell, favors a ban on all personal firework use, while others say they simply want to see if there’s anything that can be tweaked to make things safer. Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes will give the council an early report on this year’s fireworks-related calls to police and fire on Monday; a workshop will also be held this fall.

“I’m sure that council will have a lot of input, given the number of emails we’ve received and even conversations we’ve had walking down Main Street,” Mayor Tim Leavitt said Thursday. “We’ll go from there, see what council’s pleasure is.”

The city council has tightened its regulations on fireworks three times in the last decade, said Jan Bader, Vancouver’s program and policy manager. First, it voted to eliminate legal use of fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Next, it made using fireworks on July 5 illegal. In 2008, it cut the legal use days to four, an ordinance that went into effect last year.

Clark County commissioners have made it clear they have no desire to tighten their laws on legal fireworks, and declined to shorten their legal use dates when the city did so in 2008. They repeated that sentiment this year.

Every time the topic comes up, the city gets feedback from dozens of people on all sides of the combustible issue, Bader said. Right after the holiday, those with noise sensitivities, safety concerns and suffering pets reach out for remedy.

“Then, when we talk about making changes in the ordinance, we hear from people who feel that this is their freedom and right,” she said.

Local nonprofits that operate legal firework stands also object to a ban, as they rely heavily on those sales for a large part of their annual budget, Bader said.

“It’s a very difficult balancing act,” she said.

Right now, fireworks may be sold for the seven days leading up to July 4. Fireworks can be used in city limits from July 1 to July 3 from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. and on July 4 from 9 a.m. to midnight. People can be cited for illegal firework use at all times, and for using legal or illegal fireworks outside those dates and hours.

One woman wrote to the city council saying she felt this year was worse, despite the restrictions.

“There are far too many fools and simpletons that are endangering our communities lighting these dangerous legal and illegal fireworks,” she wrote, reflecting a common thread through most of the correspondence about them. “Most often, alcohol is paired with these activities, which greatly impairs what little common-sense judgment is still intact.”

On the heels of this and numerous other complaints, Campbell suggested a review of the city’s fireworks laws and quickly found backing from Councilors Larry Smith and Jeanne Harris.

“I am hopeful that we can make further progress towards a complete Vancouver personal fireworks ban, but it is going to take patience until the majority of the council members are on board,” he wrote in response to the woman. “Your letter is certainly a help.”

Vancouver is the only large city in Washington that does not have a ban on personal fireworks, Bader said.

But Smith said he just thought it was time for a review of the policy, not to ban personal fireworks.

“If staff came back and felt there needed to be some tighter controls, I certainly would consider them,” he said.

Leavitt said fireworks have been a perennial topic in the 10 years he’s served on the city council and reflect “issues that a growing urban environment must deal with.”

Should the council place any tougher restrictions, enforcement could prove difficult, he said, adding some people will continue to do what they want, despite the consequences.

“It’s prudent for the council to have reasonable laws, limits and restrictions on fireworks,” Leavitt said. “You cannot create and enforce laws that eliminate all stupidity in their usage. You can’t legislate intelligence.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.