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Local Fireworks Regulations: Timing is Everything


April 15, 2021  by  MRSC Insight
Category:  Licensing and Regulation

Local Fireworks Regulations: Timing is Everything

Now that the snow showers and heavy rainstorms are (hopefully) behind us, it's time to start thinking about May flowers, Mother’s Day, and spring gardens, but it is also time to start thinking about next year’s fireworks season. Why would that be? If your community wants to restrict or ban the sale or use of consumer fireworks, now is the time for its legislative body to start considering it, as such an ordinance must be adopted by June 28 of this year to be effective next year.

This blog covers the basics of why such local fireworks regulations need to be adopted in advance and how other local governments have instituted such regulations.

Background

RCW 70.77.395 sets the dates and times statewide during which fireworks may be sold as well as used, which is not always concurrent:

  • They may be sold and used between June 28 and July 5.
  • They may be sold between December 27 and December 31.
  • They may be used between December 31 and January 1.

State law also establishes specific hours that fireworks may be sold and/or used for each of those days.

A local jurisdiction may adopt legislation that is more restrictive than state law, such as only allowing the use of fireworks on July 4 or even banning the sale and use of fireworks completely, but not legislation that is less restrictive than state law. (Fireworks bans typically include exceptions for permitted public fireworks shows.)

RCW 70.77.250(4) requires that any legislation adopted that is more restrictive must have an effective date at least one year after its adoption. Thus, if a city or county wishes to restrict the sale or use of fireworks in 2022, it must take legislative action no later than June 28, 2021.

Why Restrict Fireworks?

Local governments cite a number of concerns when considering whether to restrict or ban consumer fireworks, including the noise, smells, or trash generated by use of them; the potential for damage to personal or public property; the potential for injuries and/or death; and, of course, fire danger.

When temperatures are hot and vegetation is dry, the improper use of fireworks can pose a threat to surrounding property. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fireworks caused an estimated 19,500 reported fires in the United States in 2018, resulting in “5 deaths, 46 civilian injuries and $105 million in direct property damage.” The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, which burned 500,000 acres over a three-month period in the Columbia River Gorge (with destruction happening in both Oregon and Washington) is one such example of a destructive event started by fireworks.

Personal safety is another concern. Each year the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission puts out a report on fireworks-related deaths and injuries (the 2019 Fireworks Annual Report is the most recent) and estimates that “(o)n average, 180 people go to the emergency room every day with fireworks-related injuries in the month around the July 4th holiday.”

But there are also reasons why people oppose restrictions and bans. Fireworks are celebratory and traditional and help bring families and communities together. The sale of fireworks can be a significant source of revenue for many nonprofit organizations, a source that cannot be easily replaced. Bans are not always effective, since fireworks often can be purchased at locations not covered by a ban and then used elsewhere where they are prohibited. Even if a local jurisdiction bans fireworks completely, residents may be able to buy fireworks in other nearby jurisdictions that have less restrictive laws or on tribal lands that are not subject to state fireworks laws.

Further, enforcement of bans may be difficult since the actual use of fireworks may occur outside the immediate view of police officers, and of course, enforcement of firework bans or regulations may lessen the ability of police and fire officials to enforce other laws. Deciding whether to impose local fireworks restrictions is not easy for a local government.

Are Temporary Bans Possible?

Although certain summers are drier and more prone to wildfire than others, cities and counties do not have the authority to impose an immediate fireworks ban without the one-year waiting period, no matter how dry or dangerous the conditions are.

The governor could theoretically impose an emergency fireworks ban under RCW 43.06.220(1), which allows the governor to proclaim a state of emergency and prohibit “such other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.” (This is the same authority that has been invoked frequently over the past year due to COVID-19.)

However, some cities and counties have adopted ordinances (effective after the statutory one-year waiting period) that authorize specific officials, such as the mayor, county executive, sheriff, or fire marshal, to immediately prohibit fireworks during emergency conditions such as high fire danger. State statutes do not clearly address this situation other than requiring a one-year wait period before the ordinance takes effect, and there are varying viewpoints as to whether these types of local emergency measures are authorized under state law.

What Does the Public Think?

Given the various pro and con arguments, does the public support fireworks bans? The answer may vary in different places and contexts. According to our Local Ballot Measure Database, over the past decade at least 16 jurisdictions have asked their voters to weigh in through advisory votes. About three-quarters of the time voters supported the proposed fireworks restrictions or bans, although it’s worth noting that some of the ballot measures were very close, all of them occurred in Western Washington, and most of them occurred in the Puget Sound region. The calculations and answers may be different elsewhere.

For Examples and More Information

Our Fireworks Regulation in Washington State topic page provides an overview of fireworks laws, including information on permitting and licensing, dates and times fireworks may be sold or discharged, and examples of local ordinances and advisory votes. Additionally, if you have any specific questions regarding fireworks regulation, you can Ask MRSC.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About MRSC Insight

MRSC Insight reflects the best writing of MRSC staff on timeless topics that impact staff and elected officials in Washington cities, counties, and special purpose districts.

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