Community Government Police & Fire

Fireworks allowed just 14 hours in county, not at all in city

Posted on June 27th, 2024 By:

Local fire officials recommend that people leave pyrotechnics to the professionals.

Theoretically, practices trended in that direction in 2023, when Gig Harbor’s ban on selling and discharging personal fireworks took effect. And Pierce County‘s flash-bang window remains tight — between 10 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. on the Fourth of July. That’s just 14 hours for fire departments to remain exceedingly vigilant.

“But we all know that does not happen,” said Pierce County Fire Marshal Ken Rice. “If we follow the rules, everybody knows when that’s going to occur. We can adjust staffing. But we know people shoot off fireworks days before and days after.”

A brush fire burns Tuesday between Highway 16 and the Wollochet Drive ramp.

A brush fire burns last year between Highway 16 and the Wollochet Drive ramp. Photo by Ed Friedrich

Rice, backed by the Pierce County Fire Chiefs Association, declared an early burn ban that began June 1 despite a damp spring. It applies only to land clearing and burning of yard debris, not small recreational fires.

Wet spring can be deceiving

“If you have a lot of moisture, everything grows really fast,” he said. “Then the rain stops, and everything dies. Our fuel load increases because stuff grows so rapidly, but as soon as we get in 80-degree days with no moisture …. It fills people with a false sense of security.”

During last year’s dry summer, Rice’s office limited public fireworks shows to Independence Day because of extreme fire danger. Rigid requirements have been added so Pierce County displays can now proceed on other days during the burn ban.

“But it’s up to the folks,” Rice said. “We can’t police everybody. The danger of wildfires in Western Washington is real. We want people to realize that potential here is very real to have a large-scale wildfire, and that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

No public fireworks show in Gig Harbor

Rice directs residents to public displays, though there will be none in Gig Harbor this year. The city, attempting to compensate for its fireworks ban, budgeted about $200,000 for a Fourth of July celebration that could have included a small fireworks show. However, the allocation was cut in late 2023 because of revenue issues, said City Administrator Katrina Knutson.

“A community celebration for the Fourth of July remains an idea the city would like to work on if funding allows in the future,” she said Tuesday.

Flames climb trees along Highway 16 last June 25. Photo by Deb Krishnadasan

The nearest public displays will be the June 29 Bremerton Bridge Blast, June 29 Joint Base Lewis-McChord Freedom Fest, Tacoma’s 4th of July Summer Blast and Port Orchard Fathoms O’ Fun Festival July 6 over Sinclair Inlet.

Rights vs. kindness

At the heart of the personal fireworks debate is rights versus kindness, and kindness is losing, said Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One Chief Dennis Doan.

“I love the Fourth of July, personally,” Doan said. He developed a reputation earlier in his career in Boise, Idaho, for advancing safer fireworks laws. “I love fireworks. I love celebrating. But what frustrates me is that people believe that fireworks is somehow their constitutional and God-given right. What they don’t think about is where does their right to set off fireworks end and your and my right to have a safe home and not have it burned down on the Fourth of July begin?

“It’s about being a good neighbor and kind person,” he continued. “Unfortunately, in America, people don’t care about others anymore. All they care about is their right to celebrate, to blow things up, and damn everything else.

Tired of selfish people

“I’ve been a firefighter for 33 years. I loved fighting fires, going on calls, running all day and night, going on some nasty stuff, doing what we were trained to do. But as a fire chief I’m tired of the selfishness people have when it comes to the Fourth of July. Where does your right end and my right begin? And when are we going to care about our neighbors? Because right now we don’t.

Firefighters string hoses near Peninsula Lutheran Church.

Firefighters string hoses last summer near Peninsula Lutheran Church. Photo by Ed Friedrich

Doan, who has been called un-American and worse for his fireworks views, said the potential of a Lahaina firestorm occurring here keeps him awake at nights. Much of the Gig Harbor area lacks sufficient water flow and hydrants, and many roads present challenges for emergency crews, he said. Only 22 firefighters are on duty each day.

Fearing wrong combination

“All it takes is a combination,” he said. “We have lots of fuels in this area. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but if a hot August night happens with wind and a spark, it will blow through the community.”

Like Fire Marshal Rice, Doan recommends that people “go to the public displays, leave it to them and let’s celebrate.”

Last August, a wildfire overtook a Lakewood mobile home park, killing two men, destroying nine homes and displacing 23 people. Another at Fort Steilacoom Park burned 10 acres. Closer to home, flames destroyed a Peacock Hill Road home in South Kitsap on the Fourth of July and another in Key Peninsula’s Palmer Lake area the following night. An elderly man and pets died in the latter blaze. And a June wildfire scorched 2 acres along eastbound Highway 16 between Olympic and Wollochet drives. Key Peninsula Fire battled its first brush fire of this season off Jackson Lake Monday night.

Police responded to 10 fireworks complaints

The Police Department took an educational approach during the Gig Harbor firework ban’s first year. It historically has received few complaints, anyway, and 2023 was no exception. Officers responded to just 10 calls, one more than in 2022. Typically, groups said they were unaware of the new law and stopped once informed, or the culprits had disappeared, said Chief Kelly Busey.

Police will proceed similarly the second year despite residents knowing better.

“We’re not going to jump to zero tolerance,” said Busey. “We’re always an agency that looks to work with the community to get them to understand the laws and follow them. We do appreciate the Fourth of July in Gig Harbor’s city limits is generally pretty quiet and we appreciate the cooperation of our citizens.”

The Local Pyro Boys fireworks stand, located at the corner of Purdy Drive and Highway 302, is the only fireworks stand between the Narrows and Purdy bridges this year. There is one other at Lake Kathryn Village. Photo by Vince Dice

Should police confront repeat offenders, however, they can issue a $1,000 fine, though they’d have to catch them in the act.

Sheriff’s deputies are responsible for fireworks enforcement in the county. The maximum penalty is $600.

Residents can lodge fireworks complaints directly to the South Sound 911 website here or by calling the non-emergency line at (253) 287-4455 or (800) 562-9800.

Only two fireworks stands this side of bridge

Pierce County has approved 35 fireworks stands, according to Shelby Pressel of Pierce County Emergency Management. Only two are on this side of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

They are Local Pyro Boys at the Bridgeway Market shopping center in Purdy and Key Pen Vets at Lake Kathryn Village on Key Peninsula. They’ll undergo a final on-site inspection before opening on Friday, June 28. Fireworks can be sold in unincorporated Pierce County from noon to 11 p.m. on June 28 and from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. June 29 through July 4.

Firefighters could catch a break from the weather. High temperatures are forecast to remain in the 60s and 70s through the Fourth, and a series of three rainy systems will move across the region every few days, somewhat mitigating dangerous conditions fire officials described.

“We’re seeing more systems roll through this time of year than we would normally see,” said Steve Reedy, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. “You don’t usually see systems impact the Fourth of July. The amount of rainfall we’re seeing every two or three days should be enough to make sure as embers float to the ground there won’t be any concerns with wildfires starting. It’s very different.

“The past few years we’ve really been spinning it and warning people to take it easy with fireworks because it’s typically drier this time of year. With the dry winter we’ve had, we had fully expected to be in that mode again this year, but every two to three days we’re seeing rainfall. It may not be a whole lot, but it can keep the embers from fireworks in check.”

The four-day weekend beginning on July 4 is expected to turn sunny and dry with high temps each day of around 80 degrees, should anybody be tempted to ignore fire and police warnings and shoot off leftover fireworks.