City may reconsider fireworks on the Island

By Ruth Longoria

Two months prior to the national celebration of Independence Day, Islanders are being given an opportunity to set the stage for future years' celebrations and ensure they won't lose the right to set off fireworks celebrations at their own homes.

``We'll see how it goes this year, then we'll take a look at regulations for future years,'' said Rich Conrad, city manager, after an early morning public safety meeting April 26 at City Hall. City staff, councilmembers, fire and law enforcement discussed the merits and mishaps involved with allowing traditional Fourth of July fireworks.

Despite a potential fireworks ban in King County this year -- due to drought conditions and concern of possible wildfires -- the county doesn't have jurisdiction on the Island. So, unless the city decides to declare an emergency, there won't be a ban here, at least this year, Conrad said.

But by saying fireworks are allowed on the Island, there's potential for a problem with non-residents, said Mayor Alan Merkle. In the past few years, people from neighboring cities have brought fireworks to the Island because they'd heard the Island allows fireworks. Those people, and possibly some Islanders who didn't understand the rules, have set off fireworks in Island parks -- which is illegal, Merkle said.

During the meeting and at a City Council meeting May 2, Fire Commander Walt Mauldin went over the dos and don'ts of current regulations.

At present, according to the city's municipal code, it's legal to:

? Buy ``safe and sane'' fireworks, whether off the Island or from the Island Kiwanis Club stand, which is traditionally set up in the Rite Aid parking lot.

? Set off ``safe and sane'' fireworks in your own Island yard only between 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 4.

? Watch the Island's organized public display of fireworks 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 or other public property.

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

Discussion of a ban on fireworks has been going on at Island council meetings for at least the past 13 years. In 1992, 1994 and 1999 the council rejected plans to ban fireworks.

However, in 1992 the number of days fireworks could be set off was reduced from nine to two. 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.

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.

This year's public safety fireworks discussion came about in response to a letter the city received last fall from residents of the Island's Lakeridge area. The residents were discouraged by the lack of enforcement of existing laws at the South Mercer Playfields, where, the letter said: ``Each year, people hold what some call the `Lakeridge Fireworks' by gathering on July 4 and setting off large, professional type fireworks.''

The letter went on to say that the fireworks, which shoot hundreds of feet into the air, pose dangers to homes as the remnants of the illegal displays are often found the next day in yards and on top of homes, which in the Lakes area are cedar shake rooftops.

In addition to potential injuries and residential fires, the possibility of wildfires and danger for pets -- which are known to run away or experience trauma due to the loud noises, lights and explosions -- also lend fodder to the fight to ban fireworks. But, on the other side of the issue, Island residents have been known to resist the idea of law enforcement regulating what can be done on private property, Merkle said.

``I'm not advocating fireworks, but we've banned them in public places, and that's probably the safest place for them,'' he said.

``Can we live with `it's OK on private property, but if you burn your neighbor's house down it's your problem?''' Merkle asked.

Merkle suggested staff and councilmembers continue to look at statistics and see how things go this year with public education of rules and stepped up enforcement of existing regulations.

``We're not looking for opportunities for a lot of prosecution,'' Merkle said. ``But we are looking to change behavior.''

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