It’s months until Independence Day, but a group of Whidbey and Camano island residents have already lit a fuse on a campaign to ban personal fireworks in the unincorporated areas of the county.
The new group, Citizens for Safe and Humane Fireworks, has a website, islandcountyfireworks.com, a Change.org petition with more than 1,200 signatures and a town hall meeting schedule. Three members of the group spoke at a recent Island County commissioners’ meeting.
During the meeting, Citizens for Safe and Humane Fireworks member Jackie Lasater offered a range of statistics that underline the ever-increasing dangers of fireworks to people and property. A national fire safety association, she said, support fireworks bans.
“With more and more communities surrounding us banning fireworks, Island County is and will became even more so a destination for off-island folks seeking a venue for personal fireworks celebrations,” she said.
The members of the group argue that fireworks terrorize wildlife, pets, domestic animals and people with PTSD; spread litter containing heavy metals in the environment; cause injuries; and present a serious fire risk. In fact, Island County has the third highest rate of fireworks incidents per capita in the state in 2021, according to information from the state Fire Marshal’s Office.
On the other hand, Oak Harbor resident Brian Jones points out that fireworks stands in Oak Harbor raise thousands of dollars each year for charitable causes. The Rotary Club, for example, uses the proceeds to fund the Food4Kids Backpack Program, which provides weekend meals to kids, as well as scholarships. The Soroptimist Club’s stand funds programs for women and children in need.
“Over the years the Rotary raised over $150,000 that was poured right back into the community for important programs,” he said, adding that banning fireworks in unincorporated areas would have a big impact on sales.
Jones argued that the responsible use of legal fireworks is not the problem.
The decision of the proposed ban will ultimately fall to the three county commissioners, with Commissioner Janet St. Clair likely being the swing vote. While the anti-fireworks advocates stress that the issue is nonpartisan, it does seem to be a geographical issue. Many residents of South Whidbey and Camano Island have been active in the anti-pyrotechnics movement. But in Oak Harbor, not so much.
Commissioner Melanie Bacon, who represents South and Central Whidbey Island, has been an outspoken supporter of the ban and has shepherded the initiative through the county process. Commissioner Jill Johnson, on the other hand, is equally outspoken in opposition to the proposal. She points out that her Oak Harbor district has many young families and veterans who enjoy fireworks.
“I would encourage greater communication as neighbors before asking for a total ban on something many, many families enjoy and do respectfully,” she said.
St. Clair represents North Whidbey and Camano Island, which could represent a politically combustible mixture of opinions.
The proposed ban would not affect the municipalities, which have their own rules, or professional fireworks shows. Currently, legal fireworks are allowed in Island County on July 3-5 and on Dec. 31.
During the commissioner meeting, Citizens for Safe and Humane Fireworks member Joni Panciera said she’s seen the use of fireworks skyrocket in her Goss Lake neighborhood. One family, she said, sets off fireworks right underneath an eagle’s nest where eaglets were raised last year. The pyrotechnics scare her dog, leave a big mess on the day after the Fourth of July celebrations and pollute the lake.
“It’s scary to think of the chemicals that go into the lake that the fish eat, that the fishermen come fish and then take home and eat,” she said.
Craig Cyr, a Langley council member, is also a member of the no-fireworks bandwagon. During his campaign for office, he identified a ban on fireworks in the city as a top priority. Not long after he took office in 2020, the city council adopted his proposal. Under state law, a fireworks ban doesn’t go into effect until a year after the measure is passed.
Cyr said the ban was definitely successful and the city enjoyed a quiet and incident-free Fourth of July in 2021.
Cyr gathered the statistics from the Washington State Fire Marshal’s Office that show Island County has a high level of fireworks-related incidents in comparison to other counties. In 2021, 14 fires started by pyrotechnics were reported.
Lasater acknowledged that many of the problems are caused by illegal fireworks, such as firecrackers, bottle rockets and “missiles.” The members of Citizens for Safe and Humane Fireworks, however, felt it is only practical to ban all fireworks for the sake of enforcement. They didn’t want deputies to continue to be in a position where they have to spend time investigating just what kind of fireworks were being used, which is difficult in the dark.
The group is holding a town hall meeting on Camano Island April 1 and another at 7 p.m. on April 11 at Freeland Hall.
South Whidbey Fire/EMS and the city of Langley have come out publicly in favor of the Island County ban. Island County Sheriff Rick Felici, on the other hand, hasn’t said he supports the ban and remains neutral, contrary to what another elected official claimed. As the county fire marshal, Felici has the ability to ban fireworks altogether when the weather is too dry.