PORT ANGELES — Two Clallam County fire chiefs told the county commissioners Monday that they have not seen enough fires in Clallam County caused by fireworks to justify a ban.
The discussion during Monday’s work session centered around the fire danger caused by fireworks and when the county should take fire risk into consideration when re- stricting fireworks.
Officials have said they would not implement a fireworks ordinance prior to July 4 this year, meaning the earliest a fireworks ordinance could take effect is 2021. Fireworks are already banned in Sequim, Port Angeles and Port Townsend.
Ben Andrews, chief of Clallam Fire District No. 3, told commissioners that he was “struggling” to see a higher risk from fireworks than from other sources.
“Anecdotally we go on more fires from people putting briquettes in a cardboard box on their deck than we do fireworks,” Andrews said.
He said two of the largest Sequim-area fires he has responded to were started by a tailpipe in tall grass and by someone striking a rock while they were mowing grass.
“I don’t know that there is a statistically significant number of fireworks-related fires to say this is a greater hazard than barbecues,” he said.
“Fires started by fireworks are not a statistically significant number.”
Andrews said that any decision should be science-based.
“My district feels if there is some determination it not be arbitrary, it be science-based,” he said.
Sam Phillips, chief of Clallam Fire District No. 2, told commissioners that during the past five years there have only been seven fireworks-related incidents in the Port Angeles-area district.
“We don’t have the numbers that would support prohibition of fireworks,” Phillips said.
Commissioners said they were looking for a threshold to know when they should prohibit fireworks.
They spent much of the time discussing the state Department of Natural Resources’ wildfire threat levels, which they suggested could be used to determine whether fireworks should be allowed in any given year.
Those threat levels range from low, medium, high and extreme. The risk for wildfire is currently “low” in Clallam County and all of Western Washington.
Philips said that he believes the threshold for fireworks restrictions should be DNR’s “high” risk mark.
“That’s not to say that I am in support of or that the fire district is supportive of further regulations of fireworks,” Phillips said.
Phillips said the DNR designation is for the entire region and does not take into consideration the conditions varying between Sequim, Port Angeles and Forks.
“The hazards may be greater in Sequim than other parts of the county,” Phillips said.
Commissioner Randy Johnson said he is concerned about fireworks safety and that he doesn’t want to see fires such as the Camp Fire last year in Paradise, Calif., which was likely caused by Pacific Gas & Electric.
Johnson said commissioners recently attended a presentation in Forks where they learned that historically the forests on the North Olympic Peninsula have been prone to large wildfires.
“There were enumerable fires,” he said. “We have the wildland interface between people and the woods, therefore that comes back to the fireworks issue.”
Commissioner Bill Peach focused many of his questions on what sort of liability the county has by putting or not putting restrictions in place.
“One of the issues I’m concerned about is creating a liability,” Peach said. “What do we have to safeguard the county from a fire that causes a tremendous amount of damage? What’s the checks and balances if [the fire marshal] makes a decision [that] the chiefs don’t agree with?”
Jake Patterson, assistant chief of Clallam Fire District No. 2, said that if restrictions are added, firefighters won’t be able to enforce the new rules.
“The fire districts step back,” he said. “We have no authority to enforce that ban. That will fall on the Sheriff’s Office.”
Commissioner Mark Ozias said that county staff would work with the fire marshal to develop language for the ordinance that designates “high” as a threshold for additional fireworks restrictions.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].