City council bans fireworks in Semiahmoo

Some of the debris left behind in Birch Bay after last year's Fourth of July.  Photo by Doralee Booth.

Some of the debris left behind in Birch Bay after last year’s Fourth of July.
Photo by Doralee Booth.

By Steve Guntli

Blaine City Council has decided to restrict the use of fireworks around the city.

After a lengthy public hearing, the council voted unanimously to pass two ordinances restricting the use of consumer fireworks on June 13.

The first ordinance will ban the discharge of consumer fireworks in west Blaine. The second cuts the use of personal fireworks to one day, July 4, from 10 a.m. to midnight. Currently, the city allows fireworks to be discharged from July 1 through July 5.

The changes to the city’s fireworks policies will take effect in June 2017. They will not affect the professional fireworks display over the harbor that is part of the Fourth of July festivities, nor will they affect the ability to purchase legal fireworks in the city.

The new ordinance places a full ban on consumer fireworks for all of Blaine west of Shintaffer Road, including all of Semiahmoo spit. The council also banned the shooting of fireworks on all publicly owned lands, including city parks, harbor properties and the school. It will still be legal to use fireworks in some public right of ways.

The question of whether or not to restrict the use of consumer fireworks proved to be a controversial one. The council chambers were packed with citizens who came to voice their support or opposition to the proposed changes.

Those in favor of the ban spoke against the noise, the fire risk and the debris left afterward; people against the ban argued fireworks were an integral Blaine tradition.

“The Fourth of July is a big part of our identity, and it’s a big part of the reason I bought a house here, one block from the house I was born,” said Colin Hawkins. “I have a lot of fond memories of shooting off fireworks here, and I want to preserve those memories.”

Victoria Souze, president of the Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network, said the use of personal fireworks has a devastating effect on local marine life, particularly harbor seals.

Seal pups are frequently left on the beach while their mothers hunt for food, but the mothers will often abandon their pups if they see humans anywhere near them. More people approach the pups during festivities and that, coupled with the loud explosions from fireworks, prevents the pups from reuniting with their mothers.

Others worried that restrictive fireworks laws would discourage tourists to visit on what is far and away the busiest tourist event of the year.

“Blaine’s economy has really piggybacked on this event,” said John Liebert, a former councilmember and current resident of the Vista Terrace neighborhood. “I think we need to look at this as an opportunity to grow closer as a community. We can join together for a big clean-up effort the day after.”

Debra Hiller, who organizes post-Fourth clean-up events in her neighborhood in Birch Bay, supported the ban and hoped it would set a precedent for the county to implement similar restrictions in unincorporated areas like Birch Bay.

“The clean-up last year was just horrible,” she said. “When people can’t shoot off fireworks in cities, they come out to Birch Bay, and aside from the mess, it attracts a certain unsavory element. I support this ban and hope the same thing can happen in the county soon.”

Whatcom County’s current fireworks laws allow for fireworks to be discharged from July 3 to July 5, but only after 6 p.m.

Though the council ultimately voted unanimously in favor of the restrictions, councilmember Charlie Hawkins expressed misgivings about the process.

“I feel like fast tracking this vote doesn’t let us do our due diligence,” he said. “No one’s talked about the cost for extra police patrols to enforce these restrictions or the other costs that might be associated.”

Councilmember Mary Lou Steward took a hard stance in support of the ban. Steward lives in Semiahmoo and in her work as an anesthesiologist has seen two children who have been severely injured in the past by consumer fireworks.

“If there were to be a fire down there on the spit, it would be disastrous,” she said. “We’re not talking about taking away fireworks. We have a fireworks display, a beautiful one that’s well supervised. We’re talking about limiting the risk to private citizens.”

Mayor Harry Robinson left the door open to reevaluate the restrictions in the future, but said the ban was a logical step to make.

“We have an overwhelming appeal from people on the spit to ban this,” he said. “I wonder if at some point in the future we might look at a total ban. More and more cities are doing it as a logical move.”

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