County adopts ban on mortar fireworks

Fans of pyrotechnics living in unincorporated Island County will have a few less options for July 4.

Fans of pyrotechnics living in unincorporated Island County will have a few less options to choose from during the Fourth of July in 2025.

This week, the Board of Island County Commissioners adopted a resolution in a 2-1 vote banning consumer use of mortar fireworks in the county. Additionally, the resolution prohibits the discharge of fireworks on July 5. Fines of up to $250 may apply for violations.

For over a year now, Commissioner Melanie Bacon has been a steady proponent of limiting firework usage, citing concerns about igniting wildfires and causing harm to people, animals and property.

From the start, Commissioner Jill Johnson – the sole opposing vote – has been vocal about not wanting to support a policy restricting fireworks.

The latest proposal approved Jan. 23 is a result of months of the commissioners discussing and fine-tuning a measure that would satisfy both sides of the debate. Commissioner Janet St. Clair said it was the compromise she was willing to accept.

In recent months the commissioners have turned their focus towards mortar-style fireworks, which County Administrator Michael Jones explained Tuesday are large, multi-part pyrotechnics that are launched from a tube into the sky. Though legal in the state, a University of Washington Medicine study found that mortar fireworks disfigure more people than any other type.

Jones said the ban does not extend to mines, shells, cakes, roman candles or fountains. It also does not affect commercial displays of pyrotechnics.

St. Clair expressed surprise that the resolution didn’t also include a restriction on sales of mortar fireworks. Island County Sheriff Rick Felici said it will create confusion for people if it is still legal to sell mortars at stands in the county. Though the board initially considered banning sales, the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office advised the commissioners that this would be a substantive change.

Commissioners also had concerns about enforcement. Felici agreed significant work needs to be done for places where fireworks are already not allowed, such as the county’s public parks.

“However, keep in mind that we are fixing a problem that’s been allowed to fester for 30 or 40 years,” he said.

The meeting was widely attended, and a total of 14 people provided input during the public hearing.

A handful of Camano Island residents spoke out against the resolution.

Will Pastron said people who live in the county like the rural lifestyle and don’t want it to change.

“Unincorporated Island County is nothing like a city environment, and we don’t need or want restrictions like a city might have,” he said.

Grant Shaw said first responders are overwhelmed trying to get to regular calls on Independence Day.

“I’d rather have the sheriff on the road enforcing DUIs and drunken boaters, and not worried about fireworks,” he said.

Vince Thomas, a fireworks vendor, said he goes over specific rules at his stand and how to light the products in a safe manner. According to him, there is no way to tell if a firework was an artillery shell or a cake once launched.

The majority of comments, which came from Whidbey residents, were in favor of the new policy. Many of the speakers were associated with Citizens for Safe and Humane Fireworks, a group that has been advocating for a ban on the private use of fireworks.

Sonja Brison of Greenbank shared concerns about fire prevention and children’s safety, pointing to 2022 data from the Washington State Patrol about 508 fireworks-related fires and 198 injuries, with children ages 10-14 having the highest rate of accidents.

Oak Harbor resident Michael Johnson, a psychologist who treats veterans, said the holiday can be brutal for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“This is a good start, but chipping away at it actually is going to be a real headache,” he said. “A total ban would be more appropriate.”

Other commenters also echoed this sentiment and called for a complete ban on consumer fireworks within the South Whidbey fire district.

Whidbey firefighters responded to at least a dozen firework-related blazes last Fourth of July, according to a 2023 article in the South Whidbey Record.

Anne Tearse of Freeland said she has observed people lighting off fireworks into their forests, and expressed concerns about climate change.

“Our weather patterns are changing,” she said. “We are seeing more and more dead trees. That is only going to increase as we have longer, hotter summers and shorter winters.”

St. Clair said she appreciated hearing the emotion on both sides.

“As someone who grew up loving these traditions, I understand how passionate we can feel about the traditions we hold dear,” she said. “And on the other side I also have paid close attention to the impact of climate change and wildfire risk.”

Bacon said not all traditions should be retained, and that the county’s No. 1 job is public safety.

“We do not want to be what Maui saw,” she said. “We want to do everything we can to avoid that happening to us. We actually saw a house burn down on South Whidbey last July.”

Johnson, on the other hand, was appreciative to hear some of the comments that she said align with her personal beliefs about tradition. She said she doesn’t like the sound of motorcycles or the Oak Harbor Yacht Club’s cannon during parades, but that does not mean it’s something she’s eager to prohibit.

“I feel a little like the irony of banning celebratory behavior in association with a celebration of freedom is a little hard to swallow, for me,” she said. “This is a celebration of our rights and then government turns around and takes them from you.”

She added that part of these traditions are life skills development for kids, who are denied the ability to learn and grow when certain parts are banned. She did acknowledge that wildfires are a legitimate concern.

The resolution will not go into effect for one year, so consumers living in the county will have one more Fourth of July to launch as many mortar fireworks as they like.