Tickets for fireworks use shock people

Public outreach efforts missed some in Vancouver

By Tyler Graf and Stephanie Rice

Published:

 

Growing up in Vancouver, Alexandria Roberts would set off fireworks July 3 before traveling with her family to the coast for the holiday.

This year on July 3, Roberts, 25, was outside with her sister at the home they share in the Ogden neighborhood, watching her sister's children throw Pop Its on the ground.

The children asked Roberts if she would set off one firework. Roberts checked her phone to make sure it wasn't past curfew, then lit the fuse.

She ended up among the 46 people cited for violating Vancouver's new fireworks law, under which personal fireworks can be discharged only on the Fourth of July.

In her appeal of the $250 ticket, Roberts included a photograph of a sign of legal discharge times that was posted at the stand on Highway 99 in Hazel Dell where she bought approximately $100 worth of fireworks.

The sign showed the legal times for unincorporated Clark County, where fireworks can be set off from June 28 through July 4.

"I still had 10 minutes left, that is why I shot off my one firework in celebration for my country," Roberts wrote in her appeal. "The officer tried to tell me, 'The city of Vancouver and Clark County are two different things,'" she wrote. "But how am I supposed to know that and keep track of all the different violations?" she wrote.

Her appeal illustrates a common problem in an increasingly contentious issue. The Vancouver Police Department and the Vancouver Fire Marshal's Office responded to 626 fireworks complaints between June 28 and July 5, up from 341 complaints in 2013, according to a police report shared with the city council. The peak hours for calls were 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.

But while residents express frustration about the noise, the problem of city residents' setting fireworks off outside of the holiday likely won't go away until the county adopts the same restrictions, said Vancouver City Councilor Bart Hansen.

"The only way to police this is through sales," Hansen said July 21, when the council received a fireworks report from Vancouver Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli.

He doesn't believe the argument that restricting sales will cause people to drive to reservations. Not many people will drive that far, he said.

"I think the county really needs to step up on this," Hansen said.

Scarpelli said that at times she was uncomfortable following the directions of Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina and City Manager Eric Holmes, which were to give citations and not let people off with warnings.

"Sometimes we get in our head what this violator looks like," she told the council. But violators weren't just intoxicated people being obnoxious by aiming fireworks at vehicles or setting them off well past curfew.

"It's people with their families having fun," she said.

As was the case with Roberts, people were often confused about the rules.

Scarpelli, who wrote five citations herself, said most people were embarrassed to learn they were in violation of the law and agreed to stop.

"I felt really bad," Scarpelli said during an interview on Friday. "They are obviously good people … and no parent or adult wants to be in trouble."

In addition to the 46 $250 citations for violating legal discharge times, one $500 citation was given for an illegal firework.

Two of the $250 citations were dismissed for insufficient evidence — the person either wasn't caught red-handed or didn't confess when asked by an officer — and 10 of the $250 citations were appealed.

After Roberts filed her appeal, she was given the option of paying a discounted fine of $125 or going before a hearings examiner next month at City Hall. Roberts, who was seen by an officer lighting the firework, said she wants to go to the hearing to contest the ticket.

But the hearings examiner, Scarpelli said Friday, doesn't have authority to waive the fine. The only way Roberts could win would be to prove the law wasn't correctly enforced.

"I was very upset," Roberts said last week. She'd seen the parked patrol car, but had no reason to think she was doing anything illegal.

She could hear other neighbors celebrating with fireworks, she said.

She said she teared up while talking to the officer while he was explaining the difference between the county and the city.

"I'm a citizen of Clark County," she said. "I thought it was all the same thing."

Vancouver Police Lt. Greg Raquer echoed Scarpelli's concerns in a report to Police Chief James McElvain.

"Family-oriented citizens using low-level fireworks (i.e. sparklers) were cited," because of the city's zero-tolerance policy, he wrote.

"The majority of the citizens who were contacted for violating the fireworks ordinance claimed to not be aware they were in violation," he wrote. "Many of them indicated they researched the law, either by the Internet or posting at the place of fireworks purchase. They believed they were operating safely and in compliance of laws and once informed of the violation they voluntarily wanted to comply. Issuing expensive ($250) citations when voluntary compliance was already gained created a negative and unnecessary impact with the community," Raquer wrote.

On July 21, Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman appeared sympathetic to Scarpelli's misgivings over citing families.

"As harsh as that is, that's what we said we wanted to happen. Warnings weren't working," Burkman said. "Did we swing too hard this year? I'm not sure."

Raquer suggested the city collaborate with the county to ensure the use and sale of fireworks are the same for both jurisdictions, and also let first-time offenders off with a written warning.

County reluctant to change

No doubt, fireworks laws in Clark County are hard to keep straight.

Among nine jurisdictions, there are five schedules detailing which days people can discharge fireworks. Hours vary, too. In jurisdictions with a June 28 start date, fireworks can be set off from noon to 11 p.m. on June 28 and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 29 through July 3. On the Fourth of July, the deadline is midnight. In La Center, fireworks are legal starting 10 a.m. June 29, but that city has a 10 p.m. curfew with the exception of the Fourth of July, which has an 11 p.m. curfew. Camas allows fireworks to be discharged from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 1-3 and 9 a.m. to midnight July 4. In Washougal and Vancouver, fireworks can be set off only from 9 a.m. to midnight July 4.

Since the Vancouver City Council adopted the new policy last year, the city did extensive public outreach, Scarpelli said.

In addition to spreading the word through traditional and social media, the city posted legal use times on electronic reader boards at key intersections, distributed 50,000 flyers at retail stands in the city and sent email to every apartment manager within the city of Vancouver and unincorporated Clark County. A fireworks safety message was sent to neighborhood associations for inclusion in newsletters and posted on the city's and fire department's websites. Also, volunteers with the fire corps went door-to-door in central Vancouver neighborhoods, which have traditionally had the most calls regarding fireworks, and distributed 15,000 flyers with the new information.

Burkman suggested that next year the city post legal discharge times on firework stands in Clark County, along with a map showing city limits.

City Attorney Bronson Potter said later that the city would have to work with the county for that to happen, as stands with permits to sell fireworks in unincorporated areas wouldn't be under any obligation to post rules for another jurisdiction.

County commissioners, for their part, have been reluctant to make any changes.

Before commissioners address the topic of fireworks, they plan to meet with nonprofit organizations that manage fireworks stands to collect feedback about the possible restrictions. They'll also meet with the sheriff's office to talk about enforcement issues that could stem from changes to the ordinance.

Even the general public will have an opportunity to weigh in — again. Although the majority of voters gave a nod of approval to tightening restrictions on fireworks in a November 2013 advisory vote, commissioners plan to ask more specific questions of citizens using an online survey. The advisory vote asked people if the county should restrict sales to July 2-4 and discharge to the Fourth of July.

But the county has to wait for survey software to be installed, said Axel Swanson, the county's senior policy analyst.

"It looks like it will take a while to get that tool off the ground," Swanson said Friday.