City speaks of fireworks compromise

Vancouver proposes a ban on the most exciting, risky styles

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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photoNikii Davis, from Portland, packs a year's supply of fireworks at Blackjack Fireworks, on the first day of sales in Washington, Saturday, June 28, 2008. She spent $130.00. (The Columbian/ Steven Lane)

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photoDerek Marshall, 35, and Shianne Wright, 27, both of Vancouver, check out the $549.99 Spectacular Show fireworks kit at a stand in Vancouver in 2010. Many of the fireworks in the kit would be illegal next year if the Vancouver City Council approves a move to "safe and sane" fireworks.

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photoVeteran fireworks buyer Verity Wallis, 26, left, helps her friend Becky Kalhar, 26, purchase fireworks for her first time at the TNT Fireworks stand at SE Mill Plain Boulevard and SE Chkalov Drive on Monday June 28, 2010. (The Columbian/Zachary Kaufman)

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As Independence Day draws close, folks across Vancouver get ready to draw their battle lines over what's become one of the community's most incendiary topics: fireworks.

Some look at it as a day to batten down the hatches, get Fido some tranquilizers and keep the garden hose at the ready to extinguish wayward missiles. Others stock up at local stands, toasting their freedoms with awe-inducing displays and parties with friends.

Either way, the day's rituals have become tradition.

But those traditions could change, if the Vancouver City Council approves a new ordinance that would ban many types of fireworks and instead move to a "safe-and-sane" policy that would permit only the type of fireworks sold in Portland and the rest of Oregon. The council is expected to take up the topic Monday, and again for a public hearing on June 18.

Roman candles and mortars would be banned, as would anything that travels more than 12 inches vertically from the source of ignition or more than 15 feet horizontally. Sparklers, base and cone fountains, ground blooms and smoke devices will remain kosher.

The change would affect only activities within city limits; the Clark County commissioners have not indicated they are interested in a change. The change would also not take effect until 2013.

It's an idea that not only residents, but nonprofit and for-profit stand operators, local fire safety advocates and even the Fort Vancouver National Trust, which funds its annual Fourth of July celebrations on the backs of stand sales, are keeping a close eye on.

City Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli called the move a compromise between those who want a ban on all personal fireworks use -- Vancouver is the only major Washington city that allows them -- and those who want to blow things up with impunity.

"Having a safe-and-sane type of firework is an effective tool to still allow our residents to celebrate, but also helps mitigate some of noise issues and danger," Scarpelli said. "I think it's a compromise on this issue -- it's a very polarizing issue in our city."

Few takers

It's a compromise that few seem satisfied with.

Vancouver resident Paul Stone, 44, an information technology manager with Wacom Technology, buys about $130 to $150 of legal fireworks each year from a local stand. He keeps a five-gallon bucket of water and a fire extinguisher on hand as he and his 13-year-old son share the day's festivities.

"It brings back memories of my childhood," Stone explained, adding, "It's always been a big thing for him."

For Stephanie Turlay, 73, fireworks season means having pictures literally blown from her walls and fearing to leave her house in the Richland Estates for the night in case a stray spark lights it up.

Turlay, who is married to Councilor Bill Turlay, is the self-appointed head of the "ban the boom" movement in town.

"This business that has gone forever in this town needs to come to a stop," she said this week. "It's not patriotic. If you want to be patriotic, help a veteran."

While Stone and Turlay fall on either side of the debate, they both agree: They don't see a transition to safe-and-sane fireworks actually working.

Both questioned the city's ability to enforce the new laws, especially with Vancouver's close proximity to Indian reservations and to the stands in unincorporated Clark County, which could continue to sell Roman candles and mortars. Each also brought up the frequent confusion among residents about whether they live within city limits or not.

Stone, who lives in Vancouver, said he "tries to follow the law." But when pressed, he conceded that he "probably would" go to Clark County to buy his Fourth of July cache if the law changes.

Turlay said that with law enforcement stretched thin, it's unlikely that cops and firefighters could differentiate between those using legal and illegal fireworks.

Addressing the city council, she said: "Don't bring down rules that you can't enforce -- it's time to put on your big-boy pants and ban them. Then everybody knows the rules. That way, anybody who violates the law, it's pretty obvious."

Scarpelli said that enforcement would be a limited matter, and that her department would rely on a large-scale education campaign to bring citizens in line. She acknowledged that no matter what the rules are, some people will continue to use illegal fireworks, but noted that does carry a $500 fine.

"Over time, the majority of the people follow the rules, and that is very encouraging to me," Scarpelli said. "Will it be 100 percent compliant? No, it would never be."

She pointed to the overall compliance with the rules banning fireworks on New Year's Eve, and also for restricted selling dates. Complaints related to fireworks use in Vancouver has dropped from 688 in 2005 to 228 in 2011, Scarpelli said.

Fireworks may now be sold from June 28 to July 4. They 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 given a $500 citation for illegal firework use at all times, and a $250 citation for using legal or illegal fireworks outside allowed dates and hours.

Scarpelli said the fire and injury statistics related to fireworks in Oregon and Washington also bear out in favor of a safe-and-sane law, even when Washington's larger population is taken into account: In 2009, Oregon reported 200 fireworks fires; Washington had 1,036. In the same year, Oregon had 24 fireworks-related injuries; Washington reported 200.

"Anything that can reduce the risk for injury, I'm a proponent of," she said.

Fundraising impact

But Tracy Phillips said his nonprofit, A Hero Was Here, will be left crippled if the city council approves a ban on the most popular fireworks.

In the three years his family has run a stand from the parking lot of the Living Hope Church off Northeast Andresen Road, they've raised and donated more than $60,000 to veterans' organizations and the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington in the name of his nephew, Sgt. John Kyle Daggett, who was killed by injuries he sustained in Iraq in 2008.

Phillips worries that city stands will lose business as people head to the county and Indian reservations.

"I really don't think it's going to solve the problem. In fact, I think there will be more illegal fireworks," Phillips said. "I believe that the amount of money that's turned back into the community greatly offsets (city costs and complaints)."

Some $30,000 has also gone to help support Independence Day at Fort Vancouver, he added. His is one of eight stands in the city (and six in the county) that get their sales permits through the fort, and give a portion of their proceeds to the larger show held there.

"The fort could potentially kiss a lot of the nonprofit vendors … good-bye," Phillips said. "I think we might have to reconsider supporting the fort fireworks permits because we may not be able to make enough, with increased regulations, to cover the fort permits and all the overhead associated with the fireworks."

Fort Vancouver Historic Trust President Elson Strahan said Friday that his organization is remaining neutral on the city's new ordinance -- but will be closely following it.

The massive daylong celebration at the fort relies heavily on the proceeds from its 14 permitted stands -- about $125,000.

Strahan said his staff hasn't looked into any sales projections if there's a change, but said if it happens, they will analyze sales data closely.

"It might not make much of a fiscal difference for us, if the sales are simply shifted (to the county); it's just a matter of which of the stands are generating more revenue," he said. "We recognize the city has faced increasing pressure to regulate fireworks as the city has grown and added more density. We respect that."

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://twitter.com/col_cityhall; andrea.damewood@columbian.com.