Northwest NEWS

June 7, 1999

Local News

Vote to ban fireworks expected

by Marshall Haley, staff reporter

   During their June 7 meeting, the Woodinville City Council is expected to totally ban fireworks sales and use within the city limits. The ban would take effect before July 2000.

   Since early May, the Council has been reviewing letters, e-mail, statistical feedback, and live testimony from citizens, government officials from other cities, and lobbyists for the fireworks industry.

   Following a public hearing on the fireworks' ban during the council's May 24 Discussion Meeting, Mayor Don Brocha called for a First Reading on the ordinance and a sample vote to see how councilmembers were leaning.

   "We're dealing with a lot of very emotional issues, such as celebrating patriotism," Brocha warned before councilmembers voiced their opinions. "But we need to deal with facts, not emotions, to weigh personal freedom against our public responsibility to protect property and innocent people from harm."

   The Council voted 6-1 for a total ban. Councilmember Marsha Engel said her lone, dissenting vote represents the majority opinion of Woodinville's citizens.

   Councilmember Bob Miller's summation seemed to reflect the majority, as he explained why his opinion has changed over the years.

   "I have worked on both sides of this issue," said Miller. "I have sold fireworks for fundraising, and I have worked as an EMT and as a fire commissioner. I have been a youth coach for Northshore basketball, and my kids have been active in running and swim teams. I know that some youth teams can raise necessary yearly funds in one day of selling fireworks, while that can take six months without fireworks.

   "But on a good, dry year, a fire started by fireworks could burn the whole plateau. It's hard to tell the kids not to play with fire, then give them a 1,000-degree sparkler. Ninety-nine point nine percent of our people are very responsible, but they aren't the ones that cause the problems. Most people also don't speed, and most govern their dogs.

   "The City Council is responsible to all of society. So I can't support fireworks, from all the tragic fires and accidents caused by fireworks I've seen over the years. The City spends $25,000 each year on Woodinville's fireworks display, which has an average attendance of 20,000."

   Councilmember Barbara Solberg said, "Both illegal and 'safe and sane' fireworks hurt kids and adults. The bottom line is 'hurt' and 'property damage.' Fireworks are not necessary to celebrate freedom. Freedom can be expressed through participation in government processes such as voting or attending city council meetings. It's difficult to take a position on this, but that's our job. Every decision we make primarily weighs public safety."

   "I believe the greater public good is served by completely banning fireworks," said councilmember Randy Ransom. He said he sees no reason to question fire departments' motives for backing a ban or suspect that they have skewed statistics. "These people are motivated by an oath they took to preserve and protect life and property."

   The figures he referred to, supplied by fire marshals from Seattle and six Eastside cities, all of which have completely banned fireworks, showed marked decreases of fireworks-related injuries and property damage in those cities.

   "We had 500 fireworks-related fires in the five years prior to the ban and 100 in the five years since," said Seattle Fire Dept. Fire Marshal John Nelson. "It's hard for us to enforce our ban when bordering towns like Burien and Shoreline don't ban. For me, it's a matter of weighing even one burned-out family versus patriotism. A fire can be so devastating to a family, it's just not worth the risk."

   Mike Absher of Issaquah said that city's 1993 ban has reduced fireworks incidents by 90 percent with no fireworks-related injuries or fires since.

   Both Woodinville's Police Chief Ken Wardstrom and Fire and Safety Dept. Fire Marshal Joel Kuhnhenn have testified that the 911 calls are so heavy during July 4th week, they don't have enough personnel to answer all the complaints against fireworks.

   Personnel from both departments serve the broad area encompassing both incorporated and unincorporated Woodinville. A complete ban could cut 911 calls to a level that would better enable both departments to attend to serious emergencies, said Wardstrom.

   Deputy Mayor Scott Hageman said he has reviewed the ban-supporting data several times.

   "I didn't want a ban, but the weight of the statistics swayed me," said Hageman. "As a child, I looked at fireworks as toys. My parents equated 'safe and sane' with 'okay.' As an adult, parents in my neighborhood also seem to think 'safe and sane' means 'okay,' and that 'accident' equates to 'exception.' But some things are predisposed to accidents. Fireworks might start out exciting, but what's a bigger rush, from a kid's view? Here we have older kids throwing M-80s, with younger ones scrambling.

   "In communities with longstanding bans, in other states I'm familiar with, fireworks intolerance eliminated the problem, including any sense of a loss of fireworks. Many things in society have changed with expanding consciousness. Eleven hours in the whole year does not equate to 'freedom.' This is a 'greater good' issue, in which our responsibility is to protect innocent victims. If parents can't monitor their children, due to work, etc., we must protect them."

   "Why are we even having this discussion?" said Engel. "We went through this whole public hearing process in 1994, with hordes of citizens overwhelmingly opposing a ban on Class C fireworks (such as sparklers, snakes, cones). We went through the same process we've had the past month: testimony from citizens, pro-fireworks lobbyists, fire safety and police personnel; and the people said 'no ban.' Someone proposed another vote on this in 1995, and the Council voted to not even discuss it. It really annoys me that the Council would ignore the majority of our citizens. This ban would take away a rare opportunity for neighborhoods to get together for fun, where parents can closely supervise their children's activities.

   "I detest the noise and hassle of illegal fireworks as much as anyone. I've had to medicate my horses and dogs because of the noise. I swear some people were exploding dynamite last year. But banning sparklers and cones will not solve the property damage and injury problems, almost all of which are caused by illegal fireworks. I'm concerned that this ban will be impossible to enforce. Most people with Woodinville addresses live outside the city limits and won't be affected by the ban. I don't see the relevance of testimony about other cities. We're talking about Woodinville here: how many fires and accidents have we had from sparklers and snakes? How many citizens are screaming for a ban on Class C fireworks?"

   During the public hearing, four speakers supported the ban and seven opposed it. Fire department officers Nelson and Absher were two of the four supporters. Of the seven ban opponents, two operated fireworks stands for personal profit and two were professional lobbyists for the fireworks industry.

   All ban opponents agreed that banning safe and sane fireworks would cause an increase in illegal fireworks, with parallel increases in fires and personal injuries. They all supported more public education promoting safer use of fireworks.

   "Fireworks stands have raised a lot of money for Woodinville High School's track and cross country teams, and it gives the kids a chance to participate in a meaningful activity," said Woodinville resident and mother Patty Travato.

   Woodinville residents Margaret Bjorkaven and Karin Walsh spoke out for the ban.

   "The fire hazard is obvious," said Bjorkaven. "I would hope fundraisers could find alternatives. The public nuisance and harm to animals makes me support the ban."

   "My two-year-old woke up screaming and vomiting last New Year's from what sounded like bombs going off," said Walsh. "When we first woke up, we seriously thought a war had started. It was NOT a happy New Year's for us!"

   The City Council planned the Second Reading and official vote on the ban ordinance during their June 7 meeting.