Fireworks allowed in unincorporated Pierce County; officials concerned over dry conditions

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — A majority vote wasn’t enough to pass an emergency ordinance banning fireworks in Pierce County on Tuesday night.

Pierce County Council members voted 4-3 in favor of Ordinance No. 2021-63, which would have authorized the Pierce County fire marshal to ban the discharge of fireworks in unincorporated areas of the county.

The emergency ordinance did not pass because it needed a supermajority, which would’ve been five votes.

The sponsor of the emergency ordinance, council member Jani Hitchen, said concerns heightened after western Washington’s unprecedented heat wave. The continual days of abnormally high temperatures meant conditions were dryer, which increased the likelihood of a brush fire.

“I’m very concerned about unincorporated Pierce County. The rural parts of our county are bone dry,” Hitchen said. “It’s unintended consequences. Nobody lights the fireworks to set fires. It just happens.”

The concerns go beyond the county fire marshal. On Wednesday, firefighters across the region urged the public to not discharge fireworks.

“This year, due to the extreme fire danger, we’d like to ask each and every one of you in our community to please refrain from lighting off fireworks and attend one of the professional shows,” Russ Karns, deputy chief of Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, said.

Hitchen said the county fire marshal notified council members that the threshold to enact an emergency ordinance was met. That threshold includes the following three requirements, according to a staff report:

  1. The Burning Index is “extreme,” as determined by the State of Washington Department of Natural Resources for the entire county.
  2. The Fuel Moisture Content of the 10-hour fuels is below “8,” as determined by the Pierce County fire marshal from six different geographic locations in the county.
  3. The Energy Release Component is in the 90th percentile, as determined by the State of Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Last Friday, Pierce County adopted a burn ban in unincorporated areas countywide. The ban only applies to all land clearing and yard debris outdoor burnings. Other activities like fireworks or small recreational fire pits are still allowed under the current burn ban.

During Tuesday’s vote, a council member, Amy Cruver, questioned the effectiveness of banning fireworks.

“I feel like, over the years, government is creating a false sense of security that it can just pass a law, and people will obey it. I’m sitting here knowing that folks can carry heroin around, but they can’t do fireworks,” Cruver said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Homeowners like John Williams disagree, arguing the ban would deter some people from discharging fireworks and would send a pro-safety message to the community. Williams, a Bonney Lake resident for the past 25 years, plans to water his roof and yard to maximize moisture on his property.

“We’ve never had temperatures like we’ve had. We’ve never had the dryness that we’ve had. And we have areas like in my backyard here — all around Bonney Lake that could go up in flames,” Williams said. “People are ready to go out and celebrate. But there’s others ways to go out and celebrate. And there’s others ways to shoot fireworks, too.”

Williams said he wouldn’t be concerned, if not for the recent heat wave.

“You wouldn’t even be talking to me right now,” he chuckled.

Other Pierce County residents, such as David Campbell, were happy a fireworks ban was not passed.

“I’m glad the ordinance didn’t pass;100% support being able to use fireworks,” Campbell said from a firework stand in Bonney Lake. “It’s an American tradition, and I totally support it in unincorporated areas, in the appropriate places. It’s really dry out. Use common sense. I’m not going to cancel my kid’s 4th (of July) because of some other people who are irresponsible or use (fireworks) irresponsibly.”

Hitchen and other council members are still looking at other options, including a potential route to enacting a firework ban in the immediate future.

“I honestly don’t know if there’s enough push or enough humans here right before the holiday to get this through,” Hitchen said while sitting in the Pierce County Council building in Tacoma. “But I know the conversation with the chair this morning was, ‘Let’s start looking and see if we can do it.’ So we will see.”