Camas officials continue to debate fireworks

Council considers more limitations, enforcement of City’s fireworks rules

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Camas officials have resumed a years-long debate over how the City should tackle the issue of allowing the sale and discharge of personal fireworks.

During the Camas City Council’s workshop on Monday, April 1, members of the Council’s ad hoc fireworks committee — Councilmen Tim Hein and John Nohr — presented a summary of the issue.

The Council “continues to receive messages and input from residents who are concerned about the impacts of fireworks,” Hein and Nohr stated in a presentation to their peers.

Hein said the issue of fireworks — and whether the City should move to limit its current policy, which allows residents to discharge a wide range of personal fireworks during the July Fourth and New Year’s Eve holidays — is something his constituents often bring up.

“This is one of the topics I get consistently,” Hein said. “In the end, it comes down to rights and responsibility — the rights of constituents to let off fireworks and the responsibility to do it safely. But, once you’ve set it off, you lose control. At what point do your rights to let them off compare to the rights of other citizens to be safe?”

The ad hoc committee found that, in 2023, according to the county’s emergency dispatch center, the Camas-Washougal Fire Department responded to nine fireworks-related fires while the East County Fire and Rescue District responded to five fireworks-related fires.

“Most were grass fires … though we did have one house on top of Sierra that had over $100,000 (in expenses due to) fire damage,” Nohr said, adding that the fire likely had smoldered throughout the night and ignited very early the next morning.

“There are fires associated with (fireworks),” Nohr, who works as a fire chief in northern Clark County, said. “When you have things going into the air and coming down, it’s not uncommon to have small fires. And the ones that aren’t seen — that go off into the trees — can really take off.”

The Council agreed that Camasonians seem to be equally divided on how much city officials should restrict fireworks within the city limits.

Currently, Camas is surrounded by jurisdictions that have taken measures to limit the use of personal fireworks. Vancouver and Portland have both banned the sale and use of personal fireworks, while Washougal allows the use of “safe and sane” fireworks — typically those fireworks that do not make loud noises and do not leave the ground — but has banned the use of all other personal fireworks. In Vancouver, the use of fireworks carries a civil fine starting at $500.

People discharging fireworks illegally have caused several large fires and even deaths in the Portland-Vancouver area over the past several years, including:

• the Eagle Creek Fire, which burned for three months in the Columbia River Gorge in the autumn of 2017 and destroyed 50,000 acres, after a Clark County teenager set off fireworks during a burn ban;

• the Nakia Creek wildfire, which caused widespread evacuation notices throughout Camas-Washougal in October 2022;

• and a deadly fire at the Heidi Manor apartment complex in Northeast Portland that killed three people and injured a fourth in July 2021, after people set off fireworks in a dumpster beneath the apartment building.

Camas residents who either support or oppose the use of personal fireworks in the City have been showing up to in-person city council meetings and weighing in on the City’s Engage Camas website for several years.

“We’ve had opposing beliefs on what to do,” Hein said, adding that many residents have implored city leaders to “think about the impact to property, pets and people.”

“We’ve all experienced feedback on that,” Hein said.

Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Cliff Free told city leaders Monday that the data related to the number of fireworks-related fires and noise complaints does not fully detail the extent of fireworks issues first responders must deal with on the allowed-use holidays, especially on July 4.

The ad hoc committee showed that the number of noise complaints related to fireworks in 2023 totaled 10 in Camas and 39 in Washougal over the most recent Fourth of July holiday, but Free said “the number of noise complaints doesn’t describe what the Fourth of July looks like for responders.”

The fire chief urged Council members to not rely on those numbers to gauge the community’s true beliefs about fireworks in Camas.

“Don’t underestimate the strength of how people feel about this issue,” Free said.

He added that there have been fireworks-related injuries in Camas-Washougal, including injuries that have led to the loss of fingers.

“We’ve had fireworks injuries but not a lot,” Free said. “But it can be much worse and has been much worse in areas near here. It’s (a question of) ‘How far do you want to push the risk and just play the odds year after year?’ This is a policy decision, but I think the problem is bigger than those slides bely. And opinion in the community is stronger than this conversation belies. From a fire chief’s perspective, I look at the risks to the community — and (discharging) fireworks is literally playing with fire.”

Hein said he would like to see if the City could ban certain types of fireworks, including mortars, without going down the “safe and sane fireworks only” route like Washougal. Councilman John Svilarich said he also would like to consider if the City — which has decreased the number of days it allows the legal discharge of fireworks from more than a dozen to just two — could shorten the time period during which fireworks could legally be discharged on the July Fourth and New Year’s Eve holidays.

Councilwoman Jennifer Senescu said she believes sticking with the City’s current policy is a better approach.

“It seems the status quo is probably the best way to move forward,” Senescu said. “I don’t think ‘safe and sane’ is working. I was at the Port’s fireworks (display) and looked behind me and there were bigger fireworks (going off in) Washougal. I don’t think people follow it, and it’s difficult to enforce.”

Camas Police Chief Tina Jones said often has just seven officers on duty throughout the entire day and night of July Fourth, so responding to every single fireworks-related call is difficult.

“I have seven officers for the whole day, not all at once,” Jones said, adding that more serious calls would take precedence over misdemeanor calls for fireworks-related infractions.

Some Council members also said they would like to learn more about the possibility of requiring a permit for people who wished to set off fireworks during the allowed holiday days, which is something that the city of Zillah, near Yakima, Washington, requires as part of its fireworks ordinance.

Councilwoman Bonnie Carter asked the ad hoc committee members to meet with Camas-Washougal Fire Marshal Ron Schumacher to get more information about Zillah’s fireworks permit and come back with “more tangible policy changes” for the Council to consider.

Hein and Nohr agreed and said they would like to come back to their Council peers before July — as any ordinance related to fireworks would not go into effect until one year from the date of its approval.

Camas City Administrator Doug Quinn said he would find a date for the Council to discuss the fireworks issue and the possibility of passing a new fireworks ordinance before July 4.