Fireworks displayed - Council votes 6-1 for continued use of `safe and sane" fireworks

By Ruth Longoria

In the late 1970s, when he was a young firefighter, Walt Mauldin saw a Mercer Island home burn to the ground as the result of an Independence Day fireworks celebration. Now the Island's Fire Commander, Mauldin would like to see fireworks banned on the Island.

Mauldin brought his pitch for darkened July 4 skies and the snuffing out of pyro-technic devices to the Monday night (June 6) City Council meeting.

``We've been fortunate so far on the Island,'' Mauldin said of the lack of statistics in recent years showing fireworks-related Island home fires. ``There's a low frequency of fires -- but there's a high impact when something goes wrong.''

The City Council voted 6-1 to continue to allow fireworks from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 4 on private property only. There also will be the Island's traditional public display on Friday, July 8, visible from the Lid Park.

Mauldin isn't alone in his concerns. About half the folks who attended the council meeting agreed there's a problem with fireworks on the Island. Trouble is, the other half who spoke at the meeting disagree or don't think a ban is a solution.

The impassioned debate set off sparks as neighbors raised their voices with pleas from one side of the fence asking the council to allow a celebration of freedom and from the other side asking for a cease to the fireworks.

``My family enjoys safe and sane fireworks, fountains and sparklers,'' said Islander Virginia Hehl. ``It's a day people look forward to -- a fun, wonderful tradition of a family event.''

But, it's not fun for everyone.

Last year, Lakes resident Scott Milburn and his wife and 4-year-old child came home the night of July 4 to find themselves in what he described as almost like a war zone. Fireworks were shooting hundreds of feet into the air -- over the cedar shakes of his roof, over the park track, and over the poplar trees, he said: ``It was like the grand finale fireworks display at the Lid.''

Milburn and several of his neighbors called the police. They asked police to turn on the sprinklers at the park or break up the illegal activities and protect their homes. But nothing happened. Police didn't show up in force and drive away the illegal festivities. The partying continued.

The next day, parks department employees came out to clean up the mess, Milburn said.

A few months later, Milburn and his neighbors wrote a letter to the City Council asking for help. That letter prompted the recent debate.

Milburn said he doesn't want an end to everyone's celebrations of the holiday, but he does want to see better enforcement of existing laws. Mercer Island already has a law saying that fireworks are legal only on private property from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 4 and illegal at any time in parks and other public places.

Even law enforcement and city staff agree there has been little enforcement of the law in the past few years, at least when it comes to Independence Day celebrations of large crowds, such as has occurred at the South Mercer Playfield.

There was a reason last July 4 that police took 45 minutes to respond to the Lakes neighborhood, and even then did nothing to stop the illegal festivities, said Ron Elsoe, public safety director for the city.

``We had four officers on duty, it was very busy,'' Elsoe said. And, there were higher priorities, such as car accidents, domestic violence, fights, and other emergency calls.

``We realize it's a problem,'' he added.

Councilman Dan Grausz said that two police officers did respond to the Lakes neighborhood complaints that night.

``But there were several hundred people down there and they were not able to clear it (the playfield fireworks) at that point,'' he said.

Mercer Island is one of the few cities in King County that allows ``consumer fireworks,'' also known as the ``safe and sane'' variety. A few cities allow public displays. Bothell allows discharge on July 4 only (similar to Mercer Island's laws) but, for the most part, one-by-one cities have decided the risk outweighs the perceived patriotism and fun.

The fact that Mercer Island does allow fireworks -- albeit on private property and only for the one day -- works as a magnet to draw non-Islanders to Mercer Island to celebrate the holiday, said City Manager Rich Conrad.

It also makes it difficult for police to enforce laws since it's hard to determine the displays that are legal from those that aren't, Mauldin said.

There's been talk at council meetings for at least the past 13 years concerning banning fireworks on the Island.

In 1992, the number of days fireworks could be set off was reduced from nine to two, and in 1994, after a survey showed 55 percent of the Island supported a ban of fireworks, they were reduced to being legal for one day -- July 4. The council rejected another plan to ban fireworks in 1999.

Statistics show there's an advantage to banning fireworks. Seattle banned fireworks in 1992 and went from an average of 51 fireworks related injuries, 143 fires and $72,236 property damage loss to five injures, 34 fires and $6,100 property loss in 1993. Other communities that banned fireworks experienced similar results, according to fire department statistics.

Fireworks are sold off-Island at many Native American reservation stands and can be purchased on the Island at the Kiwanis Club's annual fund-raiser fireworks stand at the Rite-Aid parking lot.

Grausz said he would like to see the Kiwanis be able to continue to sell the fireworks.

``Can't we still sell on the Island, but make it clear they can't be used on the Island?'' he asked.

City Attorney Londi Lindell replied that it was possible to have the desired effect.

But many Islanders don't want to lose their right to bear fireworks on their own property. And, fireworks sellers don't want to lose customers.

Art Pozner, past president of the Kiwanis Club, said the club has been selling safe and sane fireworks for the past 35 years and makes at least 6,000 fireworks transactions a year.

``That's about 210,000 transactions and more than a million individual pieces of pyro-technic devices. Those sales have put about $750,000 -- three-quarters of a million dollars -- back into the community, mostly into programs for children,'' he said.

``It's certainly true that fireworks are hazardous,'' Pozner said. ``But, we have insurance for this and there's never been a claim, that we know of, for injury, death or property damage. Our experience says the risk is very low.''

Mayor Alan Merkle was the lone dissenting voice on the council.

``It's naive to believe there will be a significant reduction (in illegal fireworks displays) until we actually ban fireworks. We're fooling ourselves,'' Merkle said.

Elsoe said law enforcement will be stepped up this year on July 4 -- with 10 officers on duty, including officers on bicycles at the parks. There also will be additional public education, such as signs posted at public places to let people know that fireworks are not allowed.

Sidebar: Fireworks on Mercer Island

According to the city's municipal code, it's legal to:

? Buy safe and sane/consumer fireworks, whether off the Island or from the Island Kiwanis Club stand, which will be set up in the Rite Aid parking lot.

? Set off consumer fireworks on your Island property between 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 4.

? Watch the Island's organized public display of fireworks Friday, July 8, which will be set off from the barge off Faben Point and visible over Lake Washington near the Lid Park area.

However, it's not legal -- and there's a $500 fine per violation -- if you:

? Set off fireworks of any kind in Island parks, school yards or other public property.

? Set off fireworks at any time other than between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. July 4.

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