Give communities emergency power to ban fireworks

This June was just about the hottest and driest in Washington history, turning the state’s vegetation into so much kindling.

That sets the stage for a potentially disastrous Fourth of July in many places as people ostensibly celebrating the nation’s birthday set off fireworks both legal and illegal. Even less combustible years have seen destructive fires that in some cases caused millions of dollars in damage.

The fires in the Wenatchee area and the Olympic Mountains could be omens for what to expect this week. People are already setting off fireworks bought at the ubiquitous “safe and sane” stands as well as the often illegal ones sold on Indian reservations.

Note: Any fireworks designed to go into the air are illegal everywhere except on tribal land. Anything that explodes, too, including cherry bombs, M-80s and sparkle bombs.

So if this year’s conditions are so dangerous, why aren’t officials calling for emergency bans on fireworks – whose whole point is to combust?

Apparently, there’s nothing that can be done to prevent fireworks use in areas that currently allow them – even when conditions are as dangerous as they are this year. The governor’s office says he does not have the authority to overrule local laws allowing fireworks.

Only two counties in the state – Douglas and San Juan – have code language allowing their fire marshals to restrict fireworks due to extreme fire dangers. Douglas County has invoked that authority, banning fireworks in unincorporated areas through the July 4 holiday.

All fireworks are illegal in Tacoma, Fircrest, Ruston and Steilacoom – although some people just ignore the bans. Safe-and-sane fireworks are legal (at certain times) in unincorporated Pierce, Thurston and King counties as well as in such South Sound cities as Lakewood, Bonney Lake, Puyallup, Sumner and University Place.

In order to issue a temporary emergency ban, those local governments would have to pass the kind of enabling legislation that Douglas and San Juan counties have. Although there’s not enough time to do that this year, city and county councils should get to work to ensure that they have that kind of law on the books in the future.

Given climate change and the hotter, drier weather we’ve been told to expect, the ability to react quickly to dangerous conditions is important.

What local authorities can do this holiday is strictly enforce existing laws against illegal fireworks, which are the most dangerous, and cite those who set off fireworks outside the allowable windows. And if someone’s personal fireworks show causes a fire, hold that person liable for the costs of fighting it.