Editorials

Fireworks risk needs smart response

This year’s extreme dry weather posed an unusual risk for fires triggered by Fourth of July fireworks. Thurston County escaped with many small brush fires but no disasters, and for that we all can be grateful.
This year’s extreme dry weather posed an unusual risk for fires triggered by Fourth of July fireworks. Thurston County escaped with many small brush fires but no disasters, and for that we all can be grateful. The Olympian

This year’s extreme dry weather posed an unusual risk for fires triggered by Fourth of July fireworks. Thurston County escaped with many small brush fires but no disasters, and for that we all can be grateful.

To say our firefighters lucked out may not put it too strongly. They were put in a tough situation because neither Gov. Jay Inslee nor county commissioners could enact an emergency, short-term ban on fireworks when things got extremely dry and temperatures soared into the 90s, creating tinder box conditions.

Cathy Wolfe, chair of the Thurston County commission, says the situation needs to change.

“I don’t want to get in a situation again where you’re up against the wall and can’t do anything about it,’’ Wolfe said after the Fourth of July weekend was over.

That’s why she is looking into options for adopting a county ordinance that lets the commission ban fireworks on short notice when conditions become as dangerous as they were. It’s a less harsh step than banning them outright — and which Lacey and Olympia have already done but which Tumwater and the county have resisted.

Only a couple of counties have gone through the process of giving themselves that power, and Wolfe says it’s a slow process.

“I know that you have to wait basically for a year. It could be a year from when it’s enacted,” Wolfe said. “Whatever we do would not take effect until (after) next Fourth.’’

So even if weather conditions wind up exceptionally severe on the next Independence Day, the hands of Wolfe and fellow Commissioners Sandra Romero and Bud Blake will again be tied.

Worried things would get out of hand, the county fire marshal set an early ban on outdoor burning last month. Commissioners also sent a letter to Inslee’s office asking him to ban fireworks over the holiday.

But the governor said he lacks the authority to act on fireworks. In a June 30 letter to commissioners, Inslee said that “local governments should have greater flexibility to manage weather or drought conditions in which they feel fireworks might pose a high risk to community safety. Accordingly I am looking into what can be done by legislators to change the statutes that limit local governments’ ability to adopt ordinances restricting fireworks.”

Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said one possibility is giving the governor flexibility to order a ban on the use of fireworks in counties or jurisdictions where local governments have asked for it.

But she questioned the effectiveness of a fireworks ban in Tacoma that was widely ignored last weekend.

Of course, it’s tempting to think that this year’s exceptional fire danger is a one-time worry and leave it at that.

But with the prospect of wetter winters and drier summers because of climate change, Wolfe is smart to look into options. The County Commission should consult rural fire departments and determine impacts — both good and bad — that a short, emergency ban on fireworks sales and use might have on tribal businesses and civic groups that rely on firework sales.

In the end, community safety is the goal.

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