by Devin Chicras
On April 27, King County Council passed Ordinance #2021-0057 into law, banning fireworks in Unincorporated areas of King County, including Skyway-West Hill. If you have questions about when the ban goes into effect, whether there are any exceptions, and what the penalties for violating the new law are, read on. We’re also hosting an online community forum on Monday, May 3 at 7 p.m. featuring King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, if you have further questions.
What fireworks are illegal under this new law?
Currently, under Washington State law, a number of fireworks that are not considered illegal at the federal level are already banned for consumer use throughout the state (with the exception of tribal lands), including firecrackers, sky missiles, and bottle rockets.
Display fireworks (that generally cause the big booms around our neighborhood) described by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives as “salutes, fireworks used to create loud bangs, aerial shells… that exceed 50 mg of flash powder” are already illegal for consumer use in King County.
Explosive devices such as M-80s, improvised Explosive Devices (IED), or altered fireworks are illegal and can result in a criminal offense if caught with one.
What is typically sold in fireworks retail tents and other retailers throughout King County are all legal consumer (or, “common”) fireworks. Many of these items are designated “Safe and Sane”, i.e. anything that does not “go up or blow up”. Under the legislation passed by King County on April 27, consumer fireworks will now be illegal to sell, possess, purchase, and discharge. This includes sparklers, smoke devices, fountains, spinners, reloadable mortars, roman candles, and parachute fireworks.
Are there any exceptions to the new law?
Consumer fireworks that are still considered legal under Washington State law (sparklers, smoke devices, fountains, etc.) are still legal to sell, purchase, possess, and discharge on tribal lands.
King County will still offer highly regulated permits for public displays conducted by a state-licensed pyrotechnic operator, and wholesale sales for such purposes are still legal.
The only fireworks that will remain legal in unincorporated King County are “trick and novelty devices”, which contain a negligible amount of friction-sensitive pyrotechnic composition and do not meet the minimum threshold to be designated a consumer firework. These include snappers or “pop-its” and party or confetti poppers.
What happens if someone is caught using fireworks?
Well, that depends on when the violation occurs. Here’s a timeline:
2021: “Status Quo”
Nothing will change for 2021. There will be no change to the rules – retail sales, as well as discharge of consumer fireworks without a display permit will remain legal due to a state-mandated one-year delay to the effective date. That means retail stands may still apply for permits, and consumer fireworks are still legal from 9 a.m. to midnight on July 4, 2021 to celebrate Independence Day, and 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. on January 1, 2022 as part of New Years Eve festivities.
2022: “Warnings & Education”
While the legislation goes into full effect in 2022, the Council has imposed an additional one-year moratorium on enforcement. Instead of citations, ”…the King County Sheriff’s Office and the fire marshal shall only issue warnings to violators… and shall provide information to violators on the county’s laws governing fireworks” (Ordinance Section 9D).
2023, onward: “Penalties”
Starting in 2023, violations of the fireworks ban will be considered a misdemeanor crime, and punishable “as prescribed by law” (Section 9A). In addition to a permanent mark on the offender’s record, the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Section 9A.20.021 mandates those convicted of a misdemeanor “shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for a maximum term fixed by the court of not more than ninety days, or by a fine in an amount fixed by the court of not more than one thousand dollars, or by both such imprisonment and fine.”
Violators are also subject to a civil penalty, which is not to exceed $250 per violation (original draft of the ordinance specified $1,000 maximum), not including any potential legal fees (Section 9B). Each additional day that someone is caught violating the fireworks ban is considered a separate offense, and subject to additional fines (Section 9C).
Will this ban lead to more police interactions in Skyway-West Hill neighborhoods?
King County Sheriff’s Office has the authority to enforce the fireworks ban, in addition to assisting the King County fire marshall with enforcing “permitting, licensing and regulatory requirements” (Section 6B).
However, two late additions to this ordinance from Councilmember Girmay Zahilay may lead to changes in this approach. The first (Section 15) directs the King County Executive to prepare a fireworks enforcement study report to evaluate options for providing an immediate, unarmed, nonpolice response for reported fireworks violations between June 28 and July 6. The report, which will include a recommended approach and any proposed ordinances needed to make it work, will be sent to the King County Council by June 30, 2022. The council may choose to approve this alternate response for violations in time for the actual enforcement beginning in 2023.
The second report that the King County Executive is required to produce (Section 16) will detail the number of fireworks complaints received between June 1, 2023 and January 1, 2027, the number of citations issued, and the demographic data of those who received them. This report is due by June 30, 2027, and as Councilmember Zahilay described to us, is intended “to ensure equitable / non-racist enforcement”.
Why did our Councilmember vote the way he did?
While our King County District 2 Councilmember, Girmay Zahilay, voted “yes” on the ordinance after making several amendments which included adding studies to ensure more equitable enforcement and delaying enforcement by a year to allow for more education, he told us that he “did not feel these were sufficient to overcome my initial reservations”.
“As I said at the hearing, I was deeply conflicted by this ordinance. It’s extremely challenging to weigh the very real concerns around public health, noise, pollution, PTSD, and fire hazards, against criminal justice, cultural celebrations, fines and fees, and revenue for nonprofits.”
In the end, the Councilmember explained, “My amendment was the best I could do to navigate numerous valid and competing public interests.”
How can I learn more about the fireworks ban?
We’ve invited Councilmember Zahilay to join us on Monday, May 3 at 7 p.m. for a virtual meeting to answer community questions around the fireworks ban.
Moderated by West Hill Community Association Vice President Fin Hardy, community members can submit questions in advance via our Contact page form (subject: “fireworks”) before Monday at 5 p.m., through the chat during the event by joining the Facebook Live Event or registering via Zoom (chat access only).
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