Ban the Boom? Camas officials agree to hold public hearing to discuss banning mortar-style fireworks

Hearing set for September; if approved, the new rules would not impact Fourth of July until 2026

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Washougal Grad Night volunteers Katy McCallister (left) and Erica Allen show mortar-style fireworks available for sale at Mean Gene Fireworks in Camas, Tuesday, July 2, 2024. Mean Gene's donates to local grad nights each year. McCallister, the parent of twin Washougal High seniors and Allen, a 2023 Washougal High graduate, say the fireworks funding is critical, and that organizers of the annual Washougal High School Grad Night would have a tough time finding alternative revenues. (Photos by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Unable to come to a consensus at the dais after months of debate, the Camas City Council has once again pushed the “fireworks question” a little further down the road.

The Council members voted 5-2 during their June 17 meeting to hold a public hearing in September on the possibility of banning the purchase, sale and discharge of aerial shell fireworks kits with reloadable tubes, also known as mortars.

Due to a state law that says fireworks-related ordinances cannot take effect for one year following their passage, pushing the public hearing into September means a new ordinance banning mortars in Camas would not impact the Fourth of July holiday until 2026.

The decision to hold a public hearing on the possibility of banning mortars stemmed from a recommendation by Councilman Tim Hein, a member of the Council’s ad hoc fireworks committee.

Camas officials have been debating the fireworks issue for nearly a decade — reducing the number of days when residents can discharge personal fireworks from eight days to two days — July Fourth and New Year’s Eve — but refusing to go as far as their neighbors to the east, west and south, where fireworks are limited to “safe and sane” types in Washougal and banned outright in Vancouver and Portland.

Camas, like most small cities in Clark County, still allows the use and sale of all types of fireworks allowed under state law, including reloadable mortars, Roman candles, ground spinners, sparklers, aerial mines and cone fountains.

Firecrackers, sky rockets, bottle rockets, M-60s, M-100s, altered fireworks and improvised explosive devices are illegal to purchase, possess and discharge in Washington state except on Native American reservations.

Camas officials have been debating the pros and cons of restricting fireworks for nearly a decade, and — before the COVID-19 pandemic — regularly heard from residents on both sides of the issue during the Council’s workshops and meetings. More recently, City officials reached out to the community via its online Engage Camas website, and formed an ad hoc fireworks committee with three councilmembers, including former Councilman Don Chaney, Hein and Councilman John Nohr, the fire chief of the Cowlitz-Clark Fire Rescue district in north Clark County.

The fireworks committee presented information to the Council in April, and said 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 damages due to) fire damage,” Nohr told his Council peers in April.

“There are fires associated with (fireworks),” Nohr said during the Council’s April 1 workshop. “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 green space, into the trees — can really take off.”

Though members of the committee advocated for further restrictions — including Hein, who suggested City officials ban the purchase, sale and discharge of mortars — the Council members could not come to a consensus soon enough to hold a public hearing before this year’s Fourth of July holiday.

In May, the Council members agreed they wanted to look into the possibility of restricting mortars and requiring fireworks vendors to distribute firework safety and disposal information to fireworks buyers.

Several Council members oppose going as far as Vancouver, Washougal or Portland when it came to restricting fireworks.

“I am not in favor of changing the status quo,” Councilwoman Jennifer Senescu said in May.

Council members Marilyn Boerke and Leslie Lewallen said they were in favor of holding a public hearing on banning the discharge of mortars, but did not believe the City should ban the sale or purchase of mortars.

“I think we should move it forward,” Boerke said June 17, of the public hearing. “We’ve discussed and discussed and discussed. Putting it before people is where I landed last time.”

But, Boerke said, she was in favor of a public hearing on banning the discharge of mortars, not on banning the purchase and sale of mortars.

“I’m in favor of discharge-only,” Boerke said in June.

Lewallen agreed.

“I am one of the Camas residents who likes to buy a lot of fireworks and do not set them off in the city limits, but feel good knowing my money stays in the City,” Lewallen said in June. “I’m all for a public hearing on (banning the) discharge (of mortars) … but even if we ban the sale and discharge here in Camas city limits, enforcement is still going to be an issue and we’ll still have difficulty. Someone might buy them elsewhere and bring them into the City. We’re still going to have an issue.”

Hein argued that banning the sale, purchase and discharge of mortars would help control the riskiest fireworks in terms of fire risk and noise.

“I still believe the strongest enforcement — without putting a burden on our fire or police — is (through) ourselves, as neighbors,” Hein said. “If there’s a ban on the discharge (of mortars), I have a legal basis in my own cul-de-sac to say, ‘You can’t do that.’ There is power for citizens to have the ability to say, ‘You can’t do that in our neighborhood.’”

Councilman John Svilarich said he believed banning the discharge — but not the sale or purchase — of mortars would cause even more confusion and muddy the waters when it came to enforcing the new ordinance.

“Then a neighbor says, ‘I bought it in town, what do you mean I can’t use it?’” Svilarich said during the Council’s June 17 meeting.

Senescu said in June that she did not support moving forward with any attempts to further regulate fireworks in Camas.

“I don’t support going forward on this,” Senescu said. “From what I’ve listened to, the people want to stick with the status quo and what the state of Washington said was legal.”

Councilwoman and Camas Mayor Pro Tem Bonnie Carter said in June that she supported holding a public hearing on the possibility of banning the purchase, sale and discharge of mortars, but added that she believed the Council should not hold the hearing this summer.

“I recommend September, when everyone is returning from summer vacations,” Carter said.

Nohr, who said he has heard “overwhelmingly” from citizens who support a fireworks ban in Camas, agreed that holding the public hearing in September made sense.

“If we do it in July, we’ll get comments from a lot of people who are really upset about it,” Nohr said. “I would rather have reasoned arguments rather than emotional arguments. It won’t change the effective date, and we would hear more reasoned arguments in September.”

In the end, the majority of Council members voted to hold a public hearing on the possibility of banning the purchase, sale and discharge of mortars in September. Senescu and Lewallen voted “no,” and Lewallen pointed out that she was not against holding a hearing to ban the discharge of mortars, but was against holding a hearing on banning the purchase and sale of the aerial fireworks kits.

“We’re looking at being more restrictive than state law,” Lewallen added. “Those who want it changed need to be reaching out to their state legislators. … I’ve heard from both sides and have heard more from people (who think) the restrictions we have in place are restrictive enough. Every time we continue to chip away at it … I think those individuals (who want more restrictions on fireworks in Camas) will not be happy with it until they are banned.”

Nohr countered that it was human nature to keep “chipping away” at controversial policies.

“The city to our west is more restrictive than state law and the city to our east is a bit more restrictive than state law,” Nohr pointed out, referring to Vancouver’s fireworks ban and Washougal’s ban on all but “safe and sane” fireworks, adding that he and his firefighting professional colleagues have actually been discussing how they might approach state legislators about the state’s fireworks laws.

“Out of everything, this is what we all have heard the most about,” Nohr said of the fireworks issue. “What I get, overwhelmingly, is people asking me for a ban.”

Some Council members, including Boerke, said they would still like to see the public have more of a voice when it comes to the fireworks issue.

“Many cities have done advisory votes,” Camas’ city attorney, Shawn MacPherson, told the Council in June. “There is a cost … usually $30,000 to $50,000.”

“I like that idea,” Boerke said. “Let the people vote.”

Hein asked MacPherson if the Council could go out for a public advisory vote.

“We could do that after the public hearing, right?” Hein asked MacPherson.

“Absolutely,” MacPherson said. “There’s nothing stopping you from (calling for an advisory vote) after the public hearing.”