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Sept. 28, 2021

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In Clark County, fireworks fight fizzles – for now

After reversal of ordinance limiting pyrotechnics in unincorporated Clark County, current rules to remain in effect

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
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The TNT Fireworks Warehouse tent sits under sunshine on Thursday.
The TNT Fireworks Warehouse tent sits under sunshine on Thursday. (Taylor Balkom for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Fireworks laws in unincorporated Clark County will likely remain unchanged for at least the next couple of years, following political and electoral jostling over the past several months.

After an ordinance passed by the Clark County Council in December to limit the types of legal fireworks in the county, a petition effort set out to overturn the ordinance. But a new-look council took care of that about two months later, leading to another, unsuccessful, referendum petition drive, which would’ve given voters the option to reinstate the restrictions.

With the councilors in place through at least 2022, no more petition drives on the horizon and potential reforms to the county’s initiative and referendum processes in the works, paths to new fireworks rules appear blocked.

Fire risks, noise drives complaints

Those in favor of fireworks restrictions often cite safety hazards, waste and negative effects from noise for certain residents — including senior citizens and veterans — and pets.

In a written public comment submitted to the county council, Judy Boljat, who lives in a Walnut Grove-area cul-de-sac, said that she annually sees damage from fireworks waste and burn marks to roofs, gutters, yards, driveways, streets and decks. She said her house and windows have been hit and that she needs to give medication to her husky, who “has dug a hole in our carpet because she’s so scared.”

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“It is like World War III is here each year and goes on forever,” Boljat said.

Iterations of county government have held more than a dozen discussions about fireworks in recent years. The most recent update to fireworks rules, which narrowed the time window in which residents were allowed to set off fireworks, went into effect ahead of the Fourth of July holiday in 2019.

Fireworks that are currently legal in the county include cylindrical fountains, smoke devices, Roman candles, parachutes, wheels, ground spinners, reloadable mortars, dipped sticks, sparklers and novelties. Of the illegal types, the most commonly used include firecrackers, bottle rockets and M-80s, Fire Marshal Dan Young said last year.

On Friday, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue Chief John Nohr, in consultation with the cities of La Center and Ridgefield, banned all fireworks in the two cities and discouraged their use across the largely rural fire district.

“Please celebrate Independence Day this year with friends and family, but without fireworks,” Nohr said in a press release announcing the ban. “The threat of fireworks accidently igniting a catastrophic fire this year is just too high to allow the use of fireworks.”

The total number of fireworks-related noise complaints around Fourth of July each year has varied. The Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office recorded 338 calls in 2015; 412 calls in 2016; 555 calls in 2017; 305 calls in 2018; 325 calls in 2019, and 404 calls in 2020.

Last summer, the office responded to five fires caused by fireworks, Young told the county council last year. The damage included two house fires — causing about $40,000 in damage — one vehicle fire, a dumpster fire and a brush fire.

Young also said that at least 90 percent of calls typically originate near the city limits of Vancouver, which has banned fireworks.

Around the Fourth of July in 2017, County Councilor Julie Olson’s house outside of Ridgefield caught fire early in the morning. The fire marshal’s office later determined that fireworks likely caused the blaze.

Olson has been perhaps the council’s most vocal supporter of fireworks restrictions, which she has previously said is the top issue she hears from constituents.

“These fireworks do not belong in our urban and suburban neighborhoods. They just flat-out don’t,” Olson said in a recent CVTV interview. “My view is that you can celebrate Independence Day without this massive intrusion in our neighborhoods.”

Olson joined Councilor Temple Lentz and then-Councilor John Blom in approving the first ordinance on Dec. 1.

The ordinance banned all but Class C — commonly known as “safe and sane” — fireworks. It only allowed devices that travel no more than 1 foot into the air or no more than 6 feet on the ground.

Under state law, the ordinance would have taken effect Dec. 1 this year and wouldn’t have applied to professional fireworks shows such as those at Fort Vancouver National Site or the Clark County Events Center at the Fairgrounds.

Plan to limit sparks backlash

Those against fireworks restrictions commonly raise concerns about limits to personal freedoms, particularly for those who use them to celebrate U.S. independence, and potential harm to local businesses and community groups that sell fireworks.

Chris Benson wrote in a public comment that, since he moved to Clark County in 2007, he has lamented “ever-tightening restrictions.”

“Each year, my family looks forward to celebrating Independence Day,” Benson said. “I can sympathize with those that don’t like the noise, but I think the current date (and) time restrictions already strike a reasonable balance between those who love fireworks and those who do not.”

Beau Leach, general manager of TNT Fireworks Warehouse in Hazel Dell, claimed that the massive retailer would’ve lost more than 95 percent of its revenue under the county’s laws passed in December. He said that the warehouse, which is expected to employ up to 115 people and have 18 cash registers this year, has a strategic advantage due in part to Oregon’s statewide ban on all but “safe and sane” fireworks, sending fireworks enthusiasts across the Columbia River.

“They’re not going to do that for ‘safe and sane,’ ” Leach said. “We’d be out of business overnight. We wouldn’t open up.”

Following the ordinance passed in December, a group of county residents launched a petition effort to rescind it. But the county council would soon make the effort moot.

NOISE COMPLAINTS

Number of fireworks-related noise complaints around the Fourth of July recorded by the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office:

2015: 338

2016: 412

2017: 555

2018: 305

2019: 325

2020: 404

Councilor Karen Bowerman replaced Blom on the council at the beginning of the year. She joined Council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien and Councilor Gary Medvigy in approving an ordinance that reversed the one passed in December.

Since then, councilors who voted for and against the restrictions have said that the issue should be put directly before voters.

“Citizens residing within unincorporated areas should have the final word on fireworks type, when, how or even if they can be used to commemorate national holidays within the unincorporated areas,” Medvigy said.

Petition drive seeks vote

Within 10 days of the council’s reversal, another group of residents started another referendum petition drive. The group had until Wednesday to gather 27,702 signatures.

Wendy Cleveland, one of the drive organizers, said the group gathered more than 1,000 signatures — not enough to place the issue on a ballot.

“It was heartwarming to see so many turn up to support our cause,” Cleveland said. “The volunteers should know that their efforts were not in vain as they helped to create lasting civic awareness.”

Those in favor of changes to the laws are out of options in regard to the November general election.

Another item that could appear on the ballot would affect who has a say in future initiative, mini-initiative and referendums in unincorporated parts of the county.

Quiring O’Brien, during a council time meeting June 16, introduced a draft ordinance that would amend the county charter’s initiative and referendum process.

The charter allows all county residents — including those who live within city limits — to vote on all initiatives and referendums — including those that pertain only to unincorporated areas. The amendment would limit the vote only to those who live in the affected areas.

The situation has only arisen a couple of times in the past few years, Quiring O’Brien said. But one example she cited: fireworks petitions.

“That would be another issue where only unincorporated Clark County would have a say,” Quiring O’Brien said. “It clearly affects only them, because other jurisdictions have taken the opportunity to change the laws for their jurisdictions.”

The Clark County Charter Review Commission held early discussions about the direct government process, but they are no longer being considered. Commission Co-Chair Chuck Green, also a member of the commission’s communications subcommittee, said that the topic hadn’t been brought up during meetings with county residents.

Commission Co-Chair Kim Harless said that, after the commissioners finalize proposed amendments that will appear on this year’s general election ballot, they will discuss potential additions to the November 2022 ballot.

“This means that this topic may resurface, or not, depending on the will of the commissioners,” Harless said.

Meanwhile, a majority of councilors expressed support for Quiring O’Brien’s proposal, meaning it will likely appear on a council meeting agenda soon. The charter amendment would need approval from four councilors to appear on the ballot this November.

Comments on limits divided

The number of public comments submitted ahead of each council decision can be a barometer of county residents’ strong feelings toward fireworks. Councilors received 1,200 comments, and opinions about the restrictions were split nearly in half.

“It’s highly emotional — we already know that — and for a variety of reasons,” Olson said. “I wish it wasn’t so emotional and so polarizing, but it absolutely is.”

After years of debate, people are “pretty tired of talking about it,” Lentz said in a recent CVTV interview. “I understand that this is an issue that people are very passionate about. I also see that we have so many other things that we really need to work on and talk about.”

The issue remains unresolved for many who supported the restrictions. But barring an unexpected action by the majority of the council or a renewed petition effort, it’ll stay that way for now.

“We’ve talked about this ad nauseam for the last three years,” Olson said. “I don’t think I’m going to stop talking about it because it’s important.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter
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