SULTAN — Merlin Halverson ticks off his list of concerns: a state reopening from a pandemic after 18 months of hibernation, an unprecedented heat wave and a holiday celebrated with fiery explosive devices.
“It’s starting to look like a perfect storm,” said Halverson, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 5, a 72-square-mile swath in and around Sultan.
The veteran firefighter is by no means alone in his Fourth of July fears.
“When you consider that we are in a multi-decade drought and we’re seeing increasing wildfires in Western Washington, the hot weather coupled with fireworks doesn’t make a good recipe when preventing wildfires and protecting people’s houses,” South County Fire Assistant Chief Michael Fitzgerald said.
New local ordinances, along with online and word-of-mouth public information campaigns, are some of the ways local fire departments are hoping to limit firework-related incidents this year.
Following a 2019 advisory vote, the Snohomish County Council approved a ban on firework use in unincorporated southwest Snohomish County, effective this year. More than 59% of the ballots cast in the South County Fire service area supported banning fireworks.
Despite the ban, people can still sell and buy fireworks within unincorporated southwest Snohomish County.
Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue — which covers a 140-square-mile area taking in Lake Stevens, Monroe and Mill Creek — encourages its 162,000 residents to use its interactive map to find where their address lies within regional firework laws. If your address falls in an orange-shaded area, fireworks are banned.
Officials also are encouraging people to attend professional firework shows, such as the ones hosted by the cities of Edmonds, Everett and Marysville, rather than discharge the explosives on their own.
“Part of the reason that we do offer the professional fireworks show is that it’s free, it’s safe and it’s fun,” Marysville spokeswoman Connie Mennie said.
Bans on burning, fireworks
The Snohomish County fire marshal issued an outdoor burning ban for the unincorporated areas of Snohomish County effective June 25, until further notice, due to high fire danger and hot and dry weather conditions.
The restriction bans all outdoor burning except for recreational fires and applies to unincorporated Snohomish County. The following cities are also enforcing burn ban restrictions: Arlington, Brier, Darrington Edmonds, Everett, Granite Falls, Gold Bar, Index, Lynnwood, Marysville, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace, Monroe, Mukilteo, Snohomish, Stanwood and Sultan.
The burn ban does not include restrictions on fireworks, but Snohomish County code allows the county fire marshal to temporarily ban firework use countywide during periods of “extreme fire danger,” as classified by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR reports fire danger in Snohomish County as high, the third tier on a five-step scale from low to extreme. If Snohomish County were to reach the extreme tier on the DNR scale, the fire marshal could invoke his power to ban all fireworks.
All areas of the state are at least classified as having a “moderate” level of wildfire danger, with the majority of the east and southern regions reaching “high” or “very high” levels, according to the state agency.
Some areas are already placing emergency bans on commercial firework use, including Kittitas County, Thurston County and the city of Bothell. Bothell’s temporary order bans the sale, possession and use of fireworks through July 5 due to “significant fire risk to community safety.”
Additionally, nearly half the state is in a severe drought, as reported by the U.S. Drought Monitor, which categorizes conditions from abnormally dry to exceptional drought.
State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz also issued a statewide burn ban on all forest lands under DNR fire protection, from July 2 through Sept. 30. That order includes campfires. outdoor burning and charcoal briquettes. Fireworks are already illegal on DNR and federal land.
“Washington state is experiencing a historic drought that is increasing fire danger across our state,” Franz said. “We are implementing burn restrictions, but we can’t fully protect our forests or our communities without the public’s help.”
The recent heat alone has put pressure on local fire departments to meet the needs of emergency calls.
“We’re running double our normal call volumes, so what happens when you add major fires to that?” said Halverson, the fire chief based in Sultan.
In 2020, the State Fire Marshal’s Office received reports from fire departments and hospital emergency rooms of 597 firework-related incidents statewide. Of the 597 reports, 360 were fires.
Firework-related fires cost $1.3 million in property loss in 2020, decreasing from the previous two years, which both surpassed $2 million.
“It takes only one otherwise legal firework to light a house on fire,” Fitzgerald of South County Fire said.
‘Significantly more’ injuries
The nice weather, combined with the state’s reopening on June 30, also creates a potential for increased incidents as people make plans to celebrate both the holiday and a return to normal.
“It adds another layer to it,” Harborview registered nurse Mark Taylor said. “We’ve been pent up for 18 months now, and this may be the first event after the state kinda reopens — giving people permission to go out and do things.”
Taylor, Harborview’s emergency department associate administrator of trauma services, said the fact the holiday falls on a weekend means more people will be off work and celebrating. It also means “significantly more” injuries.
According to Taylor, when holidays like the Fourth of July are in the middle of the week, the numbers of Harborview patients can be reduced by a third or even a half.
Two-hundred and thirty-seven of the 597 firework-related incident reports received by the state fire marshal in 2020 involved injuries.
And while items such as firecrackers, bottle rockets and missiles are illegal and dangerous, most injuries were caused by legal fireworks.
Taylor said it’s the same story every year: A “dud” explodes when someone goes to check on it, a handheld fireworks fuse burns quicker than expected, or something goes wrong with an altered device made of an initially legal firework.
Injuries cover the spectrum, from slight burns to brain injuries or death.
“All of those things your parents told you not to do with fireworks?” Taylor said, “Yeah, don’t do those things.”
Bans can’t control everything
Marysville resident Craig Dibble has seen the reader boards and countless online posts that mention the fireworks bans, but he doubts everyone will respect the restrictions.
“On the Fourth itself, it’s like being in the middle of the war zone,” Dibble said. “There’s no way you could enforce it.”
Fireworks have been illegal in Marysville since 2017, but that doesn’t stop some from lighting them off anyway. Between 2017 and 2019, the Marysville police have issued 103 tickets for illegal firework use.
Between July 1 and July 5, 2020, the city received 214 calls regarding fireworks incidents or complaints. Marysville police issued 31 tickets.
With a limited number of officers on patrol, they must triage how they respond to all the calls they receive, attending to urgent matters first, said Mennie, the Marysville city spokesperson.
Still, officials hope people follow local regulations and use their best judgment when using fireworks in legal areas.
“The success of the ban isn’t dependent on South County Fire or even our elected officials,” Assistant Chief Fitzgerald said. “It will really take our community as a whole to band together.”
Hannah Sheil: email@example.com