Whatcom View: Families, environment safer without fireworks in Bellingham

Professional fireworks displays replaced fireworks at Bellingham homes in 2014.
Professional fireworks displays replaced fireworks at Bellingham homes in 2014. The Bellingham Herald

On July 24th my dad will turn 90. His late teens were spent in combat in WWII Europe, where he was shot in France and hit by grenade fragments in Italy. He and mom still live in their Ridgemont home. Until the Bellingham City Council passed the consumer fireworks ban last year, fireworks noise went on day and night for a week before and after July 4th. He felt helpless and under siege, as do many combat veterans.

My parents weren’t the only ones who dreaded that time of the year and who supported the ban on personal or “consumer” fireworks. Hundreds of Bellingham residents worked to make it happen and each one had a valid reason for it.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Five million Americans actively suffer from PTSD and not just service veterans. Crime and accident victims are afflicted, as well. Sudden, loud noise can exacerbate it. Ban opponents often claimed that “patriotism” was the reason for fireworks. My father believes that the patriotic thing to do would be to let him sleep without experiencing an artificial war zone. He’s one of the many local veterans who wanted fireworks out of his neighborhood.

Animals suffer too: Clay Butler loved his Australian shepherd. The highly intelligent dog would cower in fear as fireworks bombarded Happy Valley for days and nights on end. Talking to other dog owners helped motivate him to work on a ban. The Whatcom Humane Society was reporting dozens of lost and found pets during fireworks season. Confused and frightened by the noise, both domestic and wild animals were hit by cars.

Noise and Litter: When the population of Bellingham was smaller, so was the noise problem. Houses were not so tightly packed together, neighbors generally knew one another and the July 4th celebration was an enjoyable family event. People picked up their litter and partied within reasonable hours. With the explosion of growth (over 14,000 new residents in Bellingham in just the past 10 years), it became impossible to escape the noise.

Fire Danger: Before the ban, fires in July were commonplace. Last year the century-old Reid Boilerworks building in Fairhaven burned in an enormous fire blamed on kids playing with fireworks. In 2011, fireworks destroyed the railroad trestle on Chuckanut Bay, causing an estimated $120,000 damage. There have been too many fires, both large and small, to list in one article and this year is especially and dangerously dry.

Safety: The majority of those injured by fireworks are children under age 15. People rarely think of sparklers as a major hazard, but they reach a temperature of 2,000 degrees and cause 16 percent of the injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. Children unknowingly grab the hot end. In one tragic case, a little girl dropped her sparkler, melting her plastic tennis shoe and severely burning her foot. Alcohol and fireworks are a common and deadly combination in adults.

Environmental Damage: But it wasn’t just fire danger, PTSD, skittish pets, or a need to get up early in the morning that contributed to local support of the ban. Environmentally, fireworks are a disaster. The smoke consists of fine toxic dusts, a particulate matter that enters the lungs, threatening those with asthma or multiple chemical sensitivity. They can also contain a mixture of sulfur-coal compounds, traces of heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals or gases. The combustion cloud can contain ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide. Smoke from consumer fireworks is released at ground level, making inhalation more likely than with professional displays. Fireworks produce greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and ozone.

Water Pollution: Fireworks are often shot over bodies of water, in the case of Bellingham, into the bay or parts of Lake Whatcom, the drinking water source for the city. Spent sparklers, matches and trash are tossed into the water after use. Before the ban one could see fireworks going off all around Bellingham Bay, landing in the water. In the morning beaches were littered with debris. Residents on Lake Whatcom shoot them off their docks. With parts of the lake outside city limits, a countywide ban on fireworks may be the only way to completely stop it.

Grassroots Effort Built the Ban: Clay Butler called me in 2010 to help create a petition to entirely ban consumer fireworks in Bellingham. I had been on the committee 10 years before that succeeded in reducing legal fireworks use to just the 4th and New Years Day. We found soon enough that allowing one day didn’t work. With fireworks readily available at parking lot stands, kids (and adults) ignored the date restrictions and continued to set them off randomly. There was also confusion as to what products were legal and which weren’t. People were unsure when to call 911 and just who the offenders were because there were so many. The law seemed made to be stretched.

Dedicated volunteers took the new petition around town and spent weekends on street corners getting signatures. For our work on the ban, we were called anti-American, unpatriotic, and told to move to Canada. Despite the abuse by a small minority, supporters continued to appear from every corner of Bellingham and each had their own story to tell. It seemed that for everyone who supported fireworks, there were dozens of neighbors who wanted them gone.

Presented with hundreds of signatures and emotional testimony by residents, the Bellingham City Council voted in 2013 for the ban began in 2014. This year will be the second July 4th since that vote.

Now, having joined over 50 Washington state communities with a complete consumer fireworks ban, fireworks should pass into history, as did smoking on airplanes and dumping raw sewage into rivers. Rather than staying home to protect the house from errant bottle rockets, we can now go watch the professionally run big show over the bay.

Help continue to make the law a success this year by calling 911 to report violators and by teaching your children the reason for it. Thank the Bellingham City Council, the many people who worked to make it a reality, and our fire and police departments for enforcing it.

This column is dedicated in memory of Clay Butler, who passed away unexpectedly last month. His tireless efforts were instrumental in making Bellingham a safer and more pleasant place to live.


Taimi Dunn Gorman is a freelance writer living in Bellingham.