A ban on fireworks in Island County seems unlikely now after one commissioner changed his mind on the potentially explosive policy change.
They may, however, have come to an agreement on changes to the fireworks rules that would limit discharge of personal fireworks to July 3-5.
The three commissioners met with Sheriff Mark Brown, who also serves as the county fire marshal, on Wednesday at the board’s weekly work session. A county attorney was just beginning to present a proposal when Commissioner Rick Hannold interjected. Though he previously supported a total ban on personal-use fireworks, he said he changed his mind after receiving a “considerable” amount of feedback from the community.
“It’s very widely debated in the community,” he said. “But in my exuberance to put forth something that I thought would be enforceable by the sheriff and the prosecutor, I kind of lost track of who I really truly am and what I consider my core values, which are holding people responsible, making sure people are responsible for their own actions and holding them accountable.”
“I think to ask for an outright ban at this point, considering the feedback I’ve gotten from people in the community, from both islands, would be ill-advised,” he said.
Giving the fire marshal the authority to issue a ban on fireworks in the event of an emergency situation would be best, Hannold said.
The effort to restrict the discharge of fireworks has been spearheaded by Commissioner Helen Price Johnson. She’d lobbied for limitations or an outright ban. Hannold initially agreed restrictions were warranted; Commissioner Jill Johnson was the sole opposition.
Following Hannold’s change of heart, the board again discussed whether to include fireworks in a total burn ban, or to ban the use of personal fireworks entirely. They had also discussed the possibility of giving the fire marshal authority to impose a total burn ban, inclusive of personal-use fireworks.
Aside from a total ban on personal-use fireworks, Brown said, linking the ban on fireworks to a total burn ban would be most effective.
“We had a partial burn ban that ended up going to a total burn ban. At that point, the logic behind not allowing enclosed fires, but allowing fireworks, becomes problematic,” Brown said.
Johnson said she was in favor of restricting personal-use fireworks in hazardous circumstances, and added she would be “more than happy” to give that authority to the fire marshal. She added that there needs to be a detailed outline of what circumstances constitute the need for a ban, and that there should be an early-notice time frame specified. That way, individuals don’t “gear up” for certain types of celebrations only to be told “no” at the last minute.
“Emergency circumstances are, by definition, not known well in advance,” said Price Johnson. “I think the verbiage around having consultation with the fire officials provides the community with the assurance that it would not be done arbitrarily.”
Perhaps a clause could address instances of fire breakouts, she suggested, adding there needs to be time to notify people when a ban is put into effect.
“It’s hard to imagine a scenario where you have a level of dryness that you don’t see coming in advance. One hot day doesn’t create an emergency,” she said.
Price Johnson said she wouldn’t support including a time frame in the county code. She asked Johnson and Hannold if there was interest in restricting the number of days fireworks would be permitted, noting that she’d received numerous emails from residents requesting a reduction in allowed discharge periods.
During the previous meeting she suggested limiting personal-use fireworks to July 4 only, citing concerns from citizens about trash, pets and wildlife.
Oak Harbor and unincorporated Island County allow discharge of personal fireworks June 28 through July 5. Langley and Coupeville restrict discharge to July 4.
In response to Price Johnson’s suggestion, Hannold said he would support restricting discharge of personal fireworks to July 3-5.
Johnson argued against the proposal, saying that the ability to ignite fireworks is a major draw for tourists who come to the islands. Price Johnson said she doesn’t believe restricting fireworks to July 3 and 4 would have a negative impact on the economy.
Johnson eventually acquiesced, however, saying she could accept the July 3-5 time frame.
“I think fireworks have gotten more intense over time; I think that’s a fair statement to make,” said Johnson. “I still think there’s room in our culture for fireworks celebrations and the traditions that go along with it, and I am comfortable with the third, fourth and fifth as that celebratory window.”
New Year’s would also be included, for a total of four days a year.
The proposed ban on fireworks would only apply to fireworks sold and ignited for personal use in areas of unincorporated Island County, not those discharged during public displays, such as Oak Harbor’s July 4 celebration or Freeland’s July 3 Celebrate America event.
If the new fireworks rules are adopted, they will take effect one year after their adoption, unless the state Legislature decides in favor of an earlier date.
The public will have the opportunity to review and comment upon a draft ordinance before it is finalized.