EVERETT — Snohomish County’s fire marshal is due to gain emergency powers to ban fireworks during periods of extreme drought starting a year or two from now, but that could become moot depending on how voters respond to an advisory fireworks vote proposed for the November ballot.
The County Council voted 4-1 Wednesday to give the fire marshal the new authority during periods of “extreme fire danger.” More sparks could fly this fall. Council Chairman Terry Ryan wants voters to weigh in on banning fireworks in the county’s unincorporated areas.
“I think it’s time to have a discussion,” Ryan said.
For years, the County Council has found itself caught between warring fireworks factions.
On one side, there are many fire officials who favor banning fireworks altogether. They’re allied with homeowners who complain about noise, frightened pets and the danger of neighbors accidently burning down houses during July 4 celebrations.
On the other side are people who operate fireworks stands, often for charity, and their patrons, who talk about traditional Fourth of July fun with friends and family.
Both sides came out Wednesday, when the County Council convened a hearing on the fire-marshal question.
“We would like a full ban, but we feel this is a very positive step,” said Shaughn Maxwell, deputy chief of Snohomish County Fire District 1.
Robert Vogel spoke to the council about the lack of law-enforcement response to illegal fireworks in the Storm Lake area near Snohomish, where he’s lived for 29 years. He didn’t understand how the fire marshal could get sheriff’s deputies to enforce the restriction. He said he feels like people come out to his neighborhood this time of year to “blow up the world.”
“Independence Day on the Fourth is not my independence,” Vogel said. “It is the day when I lose my independence because of the bombs and shells and whatnot that’s going on.”
Opponents of the fire marshal ordinance were quick to point out its shortcomings: The law doesn’t define what “extreme fire danger” means. It would do little to prevent people from buying fireworks at Boom City in Tulalip or on other Indian reservations and shooting them off elsewhere in Snohomish County. County fireworks enforcement is light to non-existent as is. And many of the fireworks that generate complaints, such as bottle rockets and M-80s, already are banned by the state.
Katie Westall, an account specialist with importer Thunder Fireworks of Tacoma, questioned why the legislation passed Wednesday was so vague. It would shut down legal retailers, like her clients, and push more consumers toward illegal fireworks, she said.
“As it is currently written, fireworks could be banned at any time on the whim and on the opinion of the fire marshal,” Westall said. “Definition of extreme fire danger based on science and statistics must be added to this ordinance. Time constraints also need to be added to the proposed ordinance and reevaluation of extreme fire danger should be required.”
Councilwoman Stephanie Wright, who proposed the legislation, admitted that it’s imperfect. Wright called it a useful tool during periods of extreme drought, such as the dry weather that affected the region during the summer of 2015.
“We were caught last year without any authority to do anything about fireworks,” she said.
Councilman Ken Klein cast the only vote against the legislation.
“It doesn’t accomplish its desired goal and I will not be supporting it,” Klein said.
The fire marshal’s new powers would take effect in 2017 or 2018, depending on when Executive Dave Somers signs the legislation. The lag owes to a state law that delays local fireworks restrictions until the following year.
Council members said they’re likely to amend the version they passed Wednesday.
Separately, Ryan, the council chairman, expects to start talks next month about an advisory vote on banning fireworks in unincorporated areas, where more than a quarter of Snohomish County’s approximately 760,000 people live. The council would have to submit the proposed measure to the county auditor by early August to place it on the ballot in November.
Councilman Hans Dunshee is exploring neighborhood-specific fireworks bans. Dunshee said the proposed legislation would be modeled after the county’s no-shooting areas and would require a majority of people in a given area to sign a petition supporting the ban. A discussion is planned during the council’s Operations Committee meeting at 9 a.m. July 12.
Fireworks already are prohibited in the cities of Edmonds, Everett, Gold Bar, Lynnwood, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace, Mukilteo and Woodway. New bans are set to take effect in 2017 for Marysville and Brier, where a majority of voters came out in favor of the restriction during advisory votes last fall.
Fireworks stands in Washington opened Tuesday and can stay open until July 5.
County code allows people to set off fireworks in unincorporated areas only on July 4 between 9 a.m. and 11:59 p.m.