‘The issue won’t die’ Camas officials still split on fireworks issue

City Council considers holding public hearings to discuss banning discharge, sale of aerial shell kits

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Fireworks line the Mean Gene Fireworks stand in Camas, ahead of the New Year’s holiday, Dec. 29, 2016. (Contributed photo by Ariane Kunze, courtesy of The Columbian)

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, fireworks have again reared their divisive heads during recent Camas City Council meetings.

“We simply don’t agree on this issue,” Councilmember Marilyn Boerke said Monday, adding that the Camas community also is divided on whether or not the City should further regulate the sale and use of personal fireworks. “I don’t see any outcome that will be positive. Even when we vote, the issue won’t die.”

Camas officials have been debating the fireworks issue for the greater part of a decade — reducing the number of days when residents can discharge personal fireworks to two days — July Fourth and New Year’s Eve — but refusing to go as far as their immediate neighbors where fireworks are limited to “safe and sane” fireworks 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 further restricting fireworks for at least seven years. In the years before COVID-19, Council meetings involving fireworks debates regularly drew dozens of Camas citizens arguing for and against the use of personal fireworks. In 2021, the Council asked residents to weigh in on fireworks on the City’s Engage Camas website.

“This discussion is circular and useless at this point: some people point out the harm in fireworks, others wrap themselves in the flag or get sarcastic, but only few are actually trying to reason and trying to understand another’s viewpoint,” one person wrote on the Engage Camas site on June 30, 2021. “There is a saying in civics (that) ‘your right to swing a punch at me ends at my face.’ Good citizenship sometimes means giving up what you really want to do because it causes harm to fellow citizens. Participants in this discussion have clearly described harm to them from the way the current fireworks policies are enacted: the threat of destroyed property, extra expense, disrupted peace of mind and trauma to those suffering from PTSD. Even if those claims were only a small minority, surely their fear and pain and expense deserve consideration over others’ wanting to play with fire. It’s called good citizenship, and being a good neighbor. Find another way to enjoy the holiday — It’s a small thing to ask.”

Others argued the issue was not something Council members should base on public opinion but, rather, on the safety of all city residents.

“Get real and make this decision based on (public safety), not public opinion,” one commenter told Camas officials. “On our street, two homes have had fires caused by fireworks — one smoldering in-ground that could have ignited, the other a tree that did ignite and were it not for a neighbor getting up to check on her kids in the middle of the night, that situation may have tragically escalated. Residents have NO BUSINESS spreading the equivalent of countless lit cigarette butts all over our beautiful green community! Your continued inaction is to blame if we suffer a catastrophic wildfire. You have been asked to take action for YEARS yet here you are — continuing to ‘poll’ and (kowtow) to the loudest voices … It’s unconscionable.”

City Council members have since gone back and forth on the issue — finally appointing three councilors (Tim Hein, John Nohr and former Councilman Don Chaney) to an ad hoc fireworks committee.

In April, Hein and Nohr presented a summary of the ad hoc committee’s findings and recommendations to the rest of the Council.

“This is one of the topics I get consistently,” Hein said during the Council’s April 1 workshop. “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 damages due to) fire damage,” Nohr said, adding that firefighters believed the fire at the home had smoldered throughout the night and ignited around 5 a.m. the next morning following a night of fireworks during the most recent July Fourth holiday.

“There are fires associated with (fireworks),” Nohr, who works as a fire chief in northern Clark County, told his Council peers during the 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.”

On May 20, the Council heard from several people who sell or have sold fireworks in Camas who urged officials to avoid further restrictions that would hurt their businesses or the nonprofit groups that receive money from the fireworks sales.

One man, who identified himself as the son-in-law of Gene Marlow, owner of the Camas- and Vancouver-based Mean Gene Fireworks stands, said the Council should not legislate based on people’s concerns about how fireworks can scare and harm pets and wildlife.

“I love animals, but … I would hate to see us legislate for animals,” he told Camas Council members.

The man added that he also questions how many veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are impacted by fireworks in Camas.

“I do hear a lot about PTSD and I’m very sensitive to that,” he said. “But I don’t know how many vets with PTSD we have in town … I can tell you that there are a lot of vets that come to us every year (to buy fireworks).”

Larry Larimer, a former Camas-Washougal firefighter, also addressed Council members at the May 20 workshop.

“I’m sensitive to the government trying to regulate the risks I’m willing to take,” Larimer said. “It’s my job to be responsible for the consequences I’m willing to take.”

Larimer said his neighborhood comes together each year for an annual Fourth of July gathering that includes the discharge of personal fireworks.

“I always have the (hose) ready to go, and I’ve never had to use it in 23 years,” Larimer said, adding that he believes Camas officials should not regulate fireworks any more than they already have.

“This country has become so risk-averse,” Larimer said. “Sometimes trying to protect people too much from taking risks.”

If officials want to restrict fireworks, Larimer said, he thinks they should let the public decide.

“If you feel you have to limit them, let the people decide and put it to the vote,” Larimer urged Camas Council members.

Council discusses ban on aerial shell kits

In May, despite being divided on the issue, the Council members agreed they would look into the possibility of restricting mortars and requiring fireworks vendors to distribute firework safety and disposal information at the point-of-sale.

Council members also asked their ad hoc fireworks committee members to meet with Camas-Washougal Fire Marshal Ron Schumacher to get more information about the possibility of enacting a fireworks permit and asked Camas City Administrator Doug Quinn to find a date for the Council to further discuss the fireworks issue and the possibility of passing a new fireworks ordinance before July 4.

Under state law, any local fireworks ordinances that are more restrictive than what Washington state allows, do not take effect until at least one year after their adoption.

On Monday, Camas attorney Shawn MacPherson brought two draft ordinances before the Council — one related to the distribution of point-of-sale firework safety and disposal materials and the other an ordinance that would ban the discharge of mortar-type fireworks by amending the City’s definition of “consumer fireworks” available for discharge in Camas to exclude “aerial shell kits with reloadable tubes.”

Regarding the point-of-sale information ordinance, MacPherson said the ordinance was more of a directive that vendors would distribute materials that asked fireworks users to be good neighbors and pick up after themselves.

“There is an expectation to clean up after yourselves, but we didn’t go so far as to say we’re going to issue littering tickets,” MacPherson said. “This is notice that Council has their eyes on this issue … and that it’s up to everyone to do their best. If you’re going to shoot off fireworks, be safe about it.”

The other ordinance, which Council members Hein and Nohr said should have also included a ban on selling the aerial shell kits in Camas, should include a public hearing, MacPherson added.

“The recommendation is to have a public hearing even when not required to do so if there is great public interest,” MacPherson said. “In relation to the mortar issues, the aerial shells, that would likely be the one that would fall under ‘great public interest.’”

To have a public hearing, the Council must first publish notice of such a hearing for two weeks and then devote two meetings to the hearing before making a decision.

Even if the Council were to agree to ban the sale and discharge of aerial shells with reloadable tubes, they do not have enough time to post notice of the public hearings, hold the hearings and publish the new ordinance before this year’s July 4 holiday — meaning the ordinance would not go into effect until July 2026.

At least two Council members this week said they were not in favor of the aerial shell ban.

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

Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen said she believed it was time for the Council to move on from the fireworks issue.

“We’re not in consensus on this. We’re just not,” Lewallen said. “I think we should wrap it up in a bow and move on. … We have this conversation over and over and over and never reach a consensus. Even with the public hearings, we’re not going to (find) consensus. I’d just like to move on, frankly.”

Councilwoman Marilyn Boerke said she agreed with Senescu and Lewallen.

“What would we hear at a public hearing that we haven’t already heard?” Boerke asked Monday. “This many for it, this many against it. … We simply don’t agree on this issue.”

Councilman John Svilarich disagreed and pointed out that the Council doesn’t have to have the buy-in from every member to pass ordinances.

“Council doesn’t have to have consensus to act on things,” Svilarich said. “Council needs to decide — we’re not going to put this off until December and wait another year. That’s what (government officials) do when they don’t want to act on something. That’s why we’re here — to make difficult decisions. This one is not going to go away. … Let’s quit delaying this one, decide on it and move on.”

Councilwoman Bonnie Carter, who has sat on the Council the longest of any other Council member, said she realized the Council’s final decision on fireworks would never please every community member, but thought officials should gather more public input before considering the possible ban on aerial shell fireworks.

“Process says we need to engage our public,” Carter said. “And that is painful at times, but it is our obligation to hear them — and to hear them as they tell us the same things we’ve already heard. … I believe if we move (the aerial shell ordinance) forward, that we should have a public hearing.”

Council members John Nohr and Boerke agreed the City should hold a public hearing on the possible aerial shell ban.

“I think that we’ve talked about it a lot, but never got to the point in the past few years of putting something before Council to a vote, so I think a public hearing would be important for people to have (final) input before we take action,” Nohr said.

Councilman Tim Hein agreed.

“It’s a hot topic, and we’ve got momentum,” Hein said Monday. “Let’s have a public hearing soon so we can make a decision.”

The Council members later agreed to discuss and possibly adopt the fireworks safety and disposal ordinance at their June 17 regular meeting, but did not set a date for public hearings on ordinances that would ban the sale and discharge of mortar-type, or aerial shell fireworks inside Camas city limits.