NEWPORT — Newport City Council held a first public hearing on an ordinance that would allow it to ban the sale and use of fireworks within city limits under high-fire-risk weather conditions.
Councilors first discussed the possibility of a fireworks ordinance late in the summer amid drought conditions after Waldport reported positive results from its own new regulations, and the draft ordinance before council for a hearing Monday is similar to Waldport’s.
The draft’s text is simple, about 100 words allowing council to prohibit the sale, use or storage of fireworks “for a specified duration based on certain weather or weather-related conditions” and exempting public displays such as the July 4 show over Yaquina Bay.
City Manager Spencer Nebel said there were complicating factors for councilors to take into account. Permits to sell fireworks, a popular fundraising vehicle for some nonprofits, are usually issued soon after the first of the year, whereas it would likely be June before the summer fire risk could be predicted. He said they would address this by issuing a letter with each permit notifying sellers that a prohibition could be imposed if conditions warrant.
Other complicating factors are enforceability and effectiveness. Most fireworks complaints involve fireworks already illegal under state law, those that explode or fly, and local law enforcement and fire agencies are already hard pressed to respond to the glut of complaints during and surrounding the holiday.
A Nov. 9 letter from Depoe Bay Fire Chief Bryan Daniels, written as head of the eight-department Lincoln County Fire Defense Board, warned local officials that, in addition to well-documented safety concerns associated with fireworks, there was an increasing risk of damage to people and property from resulting blazes.
“Regardless of whether you are a fireworks fan, there is no denying the data surrounding fireworks accidents and injuries,” Daniels wrote. “Based on (National Fire Protection Association) statistics, fire agencies across the nation can expect over 18,500 fires caused by fireworks in the 30 days from June 20 to July 20. Of those, 1,500 will be structure fires and 300 will be vehicle fires, with a loss of over $21 million.”
While the letter did highlight the difficulty of responding to complaints under existing laws, Daniels said the fire board urged public bodies to “consider the adverse effects of fireworks use on our agencies and communities when discussing recreational fireworks ordinances or policies.” The chief noted that any new regulations would need to be adopted before January to be in effect for next summer.
Councilor Dietmar Goebel expressed concern that prohibiting sales after a permit was issued could be regarded as a “taking,” while Councilor Cynthia Jacobi said she was more inclined to prohibit fireworks sales altogether, suggesting that nonprofits could find alternative avenues for fundraising.
Newport Fire Chief Rob Murphy, who must approve all fireworks permits within Newport Rural Fire District (permits are technically issued by the state fire marshal, but the fire and police chiefs sign off on them), said he could make contact with those who regularly seek permits, including retailers Walmart and Fred Meyer, as well as two nonprofits with three sale locations.
Murphy noted that state law did not allow the legislature to ban the sale of fireworks, only regulate them, so weather-related restrictions were left to local jurisdictions.
Nebel said staff could explore options for a wholesale ban on fireworks in city limits. Goebel said considering fireworks were such an “ingrained custom” in the United States, council would receive a lot of criticism over such a move.
All but Goebel voted in favor of Councilor Ryan Parker’s motion to schedule a final hearing and consider adoption during the Dec. 6 meeting. Should the ordinance be adopted, city council would still need to pass an individual resolutions to institute bans that includes its expiration dates.