The Kennewick fire chief has proposed a $500 fine and increased enforcement for illegally setting off fireworks in the city on the Fourth of July.
But some Kennewick council members countered at a Tuesday night meeting that the change needed in city regulations is making some fireworks in the city legal.
Either way, it may be too late to make changes for 2022.
Regulations for private fireworks are expected to be discussed again at the 6:30 p.m. June 7 council meeting at City Hall, which is also broadcast online.
Now the Tri-Cities is under a patchwork of firework regulations, with Kennewick the strictest of the cities.
All fireworks are illegal in Kennewick, and residents are encouraged to watch the River of Fire show in Columbia Park instead of setting off their own.
Richland and Pasco allow fireworks that can legally be sold in the state of Washington and West Richland has few restrictions.
Kennewick Fire Chief Chad Michael said that on July 4, 2021, he was waiting for the River of Fire display to start when he was alerted to a shop fire. But before he could get there he was diverted by a call to a fourplex apartment on fire.
A bottle rocket that landed in arborvitae trees caused significant damage to the shop.
The fourplex fire started on the pine-needle-covered roof from a bottle rocket launched by a neighbor. Quick response extinguished it, but the building was at risk of being a total loss, Michael said.
As firefighters worked to put out the fourplex fire, people were still shooting off illegal fireworks around the building, Michael said.
He’d seen the same thing two years earlier when he assisted regionally. As a Richland house burned down, fireworks were being set off on either side of it.
“It kind of just boggles the mind when we have a house on fire why people would continue to do fireworks,” he said.
In that fire the fireworks went off inside the house and the person inside suffered serious burns.
In 2012, a Richland man died after the professional display-level fireworks he was lighting exploded.
3 Tri-Cities fireworks deaths
It was the third fireworks death in the Tri-Cities in recent decades, according to Tri-City Herald records.
A baby was killed in an apartment fire caused by fireworks in the late 1980s, and a firefighter died in 1993 while responding to a fireworks-caused fire when a fire truck rolled over.
In recent years about four fires a night on Independence Day have been caused by fireworks in Kennewick.
Michael is concerned that as the city grows, brush fires have become more likely to spread to structures.
Michael proposes more education for the public, but also cracking down on offenders.
Now illegal fireworks are a criminal misdemeanor, which requires probable cause. Officials must see the fireworks lighted to bring a charge.
But that could be changed by the council to a civil infraction, punishable by a $500 fine, which would not require probable cause.
Michael said there would be discretion in how the fine is levied.
For instance, grandparents who give a sparkler to a 5-year-old would not be targeted, but reckless and dangerous actions and repeat calls to the same place could result in fines, he said.
The possibility of a $500 fine should be enough to make people pause before setting off illegal fireworks, he said.
Councilman Brad Beauchamp questioned the fines, saying 12 fires in three years likely was a small number compared to the number of fires caused by space heaters and cigarettes.
But Michael said he had more sympathy for accidental fires, while fireworks fires are 100% preventable.
And Councilman Chuck Torelli pointed out that those fireworks-caused fires occurred in just four-hour windows from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. on that holiday.
He called the illegal fireworks an issue of innocent people being impacted by bad behavior.
Make some fireworks legal?
Mayor Bill McKay raised the possibility of allowing some fireworks to be used legally in Kennewick, which might deter people who now go to tribal reservations or order online to obtain aerial fireworks that are primarily responsible for fires in recent years.
Allowing ground level fireworks to be set off could “scratch the itch” for people who want to set something off in their driveways, said Councilman Loren Anderson.
Mayor Pro Tem Gretl Crawford said she was not comfortable with the city of Kennewick having tighter restrictions than Washington state regulations.
Under a new Washington state law, some changes to firework regulations, possibly including new fines, would need to be in place a year in advance, said city officials. That would mean that if the council chooses to adopt that change, it would take effect for July 4, 2023.
While it is possible that city regulations could be changed to allow state-approved fireworks for this July 4, it may be too late to attract vendors to the city to sell them, city officials said.
Kennewick fireworks show
This year’s River of Fire Festival has been turned over to professional organizer VenuWorks, after years of nonprofit management the show.
Plans call for parking to open at noon with a fireworks display from a barge in the river at 10 p.m. In recent years a barge has not been available to set the fireworks off over the river.
Entertainment options, many of which will start at 2 p.m., are being expanded. Planned are a kids zone, a food truck alley, a beer garden and live entertainment .
Many years a $5 parking fee has been charged, with a decision on whether that fee will need to be charged this year not yet made.