The Island County commissioners may soon have the flexibility they so desired last year to temporarily ban fireworks in times of extreme drought.
House Bill 2348, which would essentially reduce a one-year delay in the implementation of fireworks rule changes to 30 days or less, made it out of committee late last month. Though it still has a long way to go before becoming law, it was the first major hurdle before the legislation; it’s now set to go for vote on the House floor.
Included in a long and bi-partisan list of sponsors are Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, and Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano.
In an interview with The Record Monday, Smith said last year’s extreme weather conditions, and the wildfires that followed, made the need for such a bill exceedingly clear to lawmakers across the state. Cities and counties must have the tools in place to react quickly in times of emergency, she said.
“I think most people agree we should be able to address that threat,” Smith said.
Wildfires in 2015 burned more than 1 million acres, destroyed homes and property, and killed at least three people. More than 1,500 fires were reported between June and September, and some reports have estimated costs of up to $320 million. President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency, and it’s widely believed to be the worst wildfire season in state history.
Though Eastern Washington took the brunt of the fires, Island County was not immune. In July, South Whidbey Fire/EMS battled the largest brushfire in decades. More than 15 acres were scorched along Highway 525 near Double Bluff Road.
The weather this summer was unusually warm and dry. A burn ban was in effect from July 1 until Sept. 30, per order of Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, who also serves as the county’s fire marshal.
The extreme weather conditions began a conversation among the county commissioners about fireworks and the potential for wildfires. Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson led the charge for a ban, but the proposal died for lack of support.
The board did agree, however, to reduce the number of days that fireworks can be discharged to four days a year: July 3-5 and on New Year’s. By comparison, the state allows fireworks discharge from June 28-July 5, and from Dec. 31-Jan.1
Oak Harbor and unincorporated Island County allow discharge of personal fireworks June 28 through July 5. Langley and Coupeville restrict discharge to July 4.
Price Johnson said the Island County Prosecutor’s Office just recently delivered a draft of the code change to the board, though it’s not yet clear when the matter will go to a vote.
Price Johnson said the summer’s discussion revealed a shortcoming in state law. Even if the board had decided to temporarily ban fireworks because of the drought, it wouldn’t go into effect for 12 months. Price Johnson said in a July interview that it was “crazy” that the fire marshal could restrict every other kind of burning but the discharge of fireworks. She’s since lobbied for more flexibility.
“I’ve been advocating locally, regionally and at the state level for it,” she said.
Due to the statewide destruction from wildfires, Smith said it was unsurprising that a bill became a reality and that it has gained as much support as it has. It’s currently sponsored by 40 state lawmakers.
If passed, it would allow fireworks changes made at the city or county level to go into effect within 30 days rather than having to wait one year. It can only be done, however, if “in consultation with local fire officials, the legislative body of the city or county finds that an extreme fire hazard or imminent threat of wildfire exists in the jurisdiction due to drought conditions,” according to the house bill report.
Also, the changes could go into effect in less than 30 days if the governor declares an emergency, or if the legislative body makes an additional finding that there is an immediate threat to life and property.
The bill isn’t without opposition. Critics who testified at the committee level said the proposed legislation would result in a loss of jobs, and hurt people’s ability to provide for their families. Particularly, fireworks are purchased months in advance, before buyers know the weather will become a problem.
Also, the bill was crafted in response to an unusual year and should not be reactionary based. The decision shouldn’t be made on fear, according to the house bill report.
Don LaMontagne, fundraising chairman and a past president for the Kiwanis, echoed some of those concerns in a Tuesday interview with The Record. The organization has sold fireworks for the pasts 40 years.
LaMontagne says the bill would punish law abiding citizens for the crimes of a few. In conducting personal research, he says the only fireworks related fires on South Whidbey have been from illegal products purchased off island on Indian reservations — none from local stands.
“They are not the problem we have, as far as fire danger goes,” he said.
LaMontagne worries the bill would also be a green light for a later and permanent ban, stamping out what he characterized as a “tried and true American celebration.” Additionally, it would remove a fundraising engine that gives to a host of South Whidbey charities; proceeds from Kiwanis sales all goes back into the community. The organization has raised $500,000 in 40 years.
“That would be extremely difficult for us to replace,” LaMontagne said.
According to Smith, the bill has strong support but that’s no guarantee it will become law. It must still be passed by the house, then the senate. She’s optimistic it will move forward.
“I think we’re going to get some movement on this,” Smith said.