Sound Off: We don’t need fireworks to celebrate freedom

We all know our summers are getting hotter and longer. August is not the only warm month on our islands anymore. There are fewer days of January; you don’t have to dig out your coats in September. Some of us have even installed air conditioners to moderate the heat in our homes—unheard of just a few years ago.

But warmer weather — and less rain — means dryer conditions. And that means more wildfires.

As County Commissioner, my job is to identify risks to public health and safety and take action to remove or mitigate for those risks. That’s why I worry about things like emergency preparedness and evacuation. It’s why I get so bothered when there’s only one ferry serving Coupeville, or when a failing dike in Snohomish County threatens egress from Camano. It’s why I worry so much about the potential impact of wildfires on our beautiful wooded communities.

It’s why I am pushing for fireworks restrictions in unincorporated Island County. We are surrounded by jurisdictions that have restricted fireworks. Because we haven’t implemented restrictions, we now experience fireworks tourism, people who visit us just to light off those loud, dangerous, beautiful explosions.

We haven’t yet experienced a fire disaster, but in 2021 Island County had the most fires caused from fireworks of any Washington county with a population under 100,000.

This is not a partisan issue. Recently a very conservative gentleman on South Whidbey, someone who basically disagrees with almost everything I’ve ever said or done, told me he would support me on this issue because every Fourth of July he’s standing outside his house with a hose hoping no embers from his neighbor’s fireworks land on his roof.

Over 50% of home fires are caused by flying embers.

Most of the mail I get on this topic indicates support of some restrictions. I think most people still want permitted, community-sponsored fireworks shows run by licensed professionals. I support that. I also think most people don’t want restrictions on smaller fireworks, like sparklers and ground spinners. I am open to discussion on those; my concerns about them are because any firework with violent noise can cause anxiety to people suffering from PTSD and to animals. And 13% of fireworks injuries are caused by sparklers.

But my main focus is on the big fireworks that have the largest potential for causing fire. It is already illegal in Washington State to shoot off firecrackers, sky missiles or bottle rockets — but since these are often legally sold by local tribes for use on tribal land, they sometimes find their way here too, unfortunately.

What remains legal to fire off here today, that I would restrict in our county, are things such as mortars, roman candles, large cone fountains and mines. The launched explosions. The big rain of embers. I think we should not allow them here anymore.

The Board of Island County Commissioners had a couple of heated exchanges on this topic at this week’s regular meeting, during commissioners’ responses to public comment at the beginning of the meeting and during commissioners’ comments at the meeting’s end. From what was said in that meeting, it seems unlikely that a change to the fireworks code will be voted on by the board this year. It is possible that the Board may put a ballot initiative forward for the citizens’ vote — if the citizens indicate to us that they want us to do this.

I know that some people are fiercely opposed to any restrictions on fireworks. They claim patriotism, a desire to celebrate America. They believe shooting off fireworks is part of that celebration of freedom.

I believe we celebrate America by serving America. When I was young, I celebrated America by serving in the U.S. Army Security Agency. Today, I serve America by ensuring public health and safety in my community. And yes, for some people, that celebration of our American ideals and beautiful American way of life might now mean giving up something of value to them. Like shooting off fireworks in their backyard.

You know where we live. Let’s celebrate our beautiful life by protecting it, not by letting embers fall on trees or by exploding roman candles near our bald eagles’ nests and over the waters where the orcas and salmon swim.

Island County Commissioner Melanie Bacon represents District 1, which consists of South and Central Whidbey.