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As wildfires blaze throughout the West, some local governments want to ban fireworks

Extra dry conditions and longer fire seasons have some local governments considering firework bans. Melanie Kebler is a city councilor for Bend. Heather Buch is a commissioner for Lane County. They join us with details.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. As drought conditions worsen in the West and fire seasons get longer and more dangerous, local governments are considering new ways to prevent wildfires. Some have their targets set on the personal use of fireworks. In Bend, the city council has extended its temporary ban on fireworks, and is considering a permanent one. In Lane County, commissioners want to enact a seasonal ban that would be tied to fire season. I’m joined now by two of the people behind these efforts. Melanie Kebler is a Bend City Councillor, Heather Buch is a Lane County Commissioner for District Five. Welcome to you both.

Heather Buch: Thank you for having us.

Melanie Kebler: Thanks, Dave

Miller: Melanie Kebler in Bend first, what led you to push for what currently is an emergency ban?

Kebler: Our emergency ban came out of the massive heat wave that our region experienced, and that Bend experienced in July. We placed an emergency ban because of the heat, because of the dry conditions, that was intended to help protect people in our city and protect our houseless neighbors by helping us respond maybe more quickly and efficiently to their needs, but also to prevent what could be catastrophic fires within our city that could be caused by fireworks. There were many in the community that were asking us in the lead up to 4th of July to take action on this. They were extremely concerned about the heat and the drought and what might happen if fireworks use was widespread. So that’s what led up to that emergency ban.

Miller: Heather Buch in Lane County, what led you to propose a seasonal fireworks ban in unincorporated parts of the county?

Buch: Well, it’s common that we get calls and emails and people requesting, upcoming to 4th of July, a ban on fireworks. But it was especially poignant this year in the aftermath of the Holiday Farm Fire, which my district fully encompasses, and the fires that happened in the gorge in years past. People were really very concerned with the drought and our well known instances with fire and mega fires in our community.

We always seem to be behind the eight-ball. These conversations come a month or two before July 4th. It’s challenging to put something on the agenda for something that could be effective by July 4th. We hear about it over and over, year after year. And so I was trying to find a creative way where we could address this and not have to re address it every single year.

Miller: Let’s listen to a voicemail that came in from Lane County about this:

Deb Chelson: This is Doctor Deb Chelson, I live in eastern Lane County, and I believe it is well past time that we stop throwing sparks into the air during fire season. I don’t think we should be doing fireworks. My children and I loved fireworks years ago, but now it’s just terrifying. We had to evacuate last fall, and I don’t want to do that again. So I just think it doesn’t make any sense to start more fires intentionally.

Miller: Heather Buch, you mentioned the Holiday Farm Fire, which as you noted, happened within the district you represent in Lane County. How much is your thinking here tied specifically to that devastating fire?

Buch: My perspective comes mainly from fire safety. The person that you just aired is most likely one of my constituents. It’s a common sentiment among folks in East Lane, which is the district I represent, and now is in the middle of the Middle Fork Complex Fires as well.

It was really important for me to bring this forward to our board, given this common sentiment in Eastern Lane and Southern Lane. There really is a call for safety for our people, their property, and the natural environment.

Miller: Melanie Kebler, the most infamous Oregon case of a wildfire caused by fireworks, at least in my estimation, was the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017, which burned 50,000 acres in the Columbia River Gorge, not far from Portland. Do you have a sense for how often fireworks lead to fires, either in residential areas or wildfires in more rural areas?

Kebler: In Bend, we actually had, earlier this summer, a small fire in one of our parks due to fireworks. I asked our fire chief to send me some statistics about suspected fireworks started fires. And we do have, every year, a handful of those occurring in Bend. So I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that fire departments throughout the state are dealing with, sometimes what might be minor, but are fires started by fireworks. And actually in 2019, we had a couple of homes that were destroyed because of legal fireworks. And what had happened there is that folks had set the fireworks off, and then taken the finished fireworks and placed them in a cardboard box or in a trash can. And that started a fire that destroyed their home, and luckily not any other homes around them.

So I think there are many examples people can think of. I agree the Eagle Creek Fire is probably the most notorious, but this is a problem that can happen with anyone who’s using fireworks, even if they think they’re being careful it can still happen. So I think it’s definitely a possibility people are worried about in Bend.

Miller: In Bend, the ban went into effect before July 4th this year. What was the holiday like this year?

Kebler: So from what I have heard from folks around town, and I’ll also talk about the calls that our Police Department received, but the sort of anecdotal feeling from people, especially people that were asking us to take action is that this year was different. It was not the same loud noises, the same disruptions that people had seen in the past, that things were quieter, that neighborhoods were quieter. And I think that was a lot of people’s experience. I’m really proud of our community sort of self policing and saying “There is a band, even though I might have planned to set off fireworks, I’m not going to do that this year in recognition of the risks that exist and the ban that has been put in place.”

Our police chief sent me some statistics about actual calls to 911 and the non emergency line, and also officers initiating a response themselves. And this year we had 62 of those. In 2019, that number was 276, and in 2020 it was 237. This year, I will mention, we also did create an email account for people to use if it was a non life threatening, non emergency report they wanted to make. That was for the whole county. So I was not able to parse out which exactly of those emails might have come from Bend. But the overall use of our 911 phone system certainly went way down this year, while that ban was in effect.

Miller: Let’s listen to another voicemail that came in from one of our listeners.

Carrie: Hello, this is Carrie from Sandy, Oregon, and I would be fine with a fireworks ban in my community, because the willingness to explode bombs over your neighbor’s house is not a measure of your patriotism.

Miller: Heather Buch first, I want to play this for you because, so far in this conversation and in the coverage I’ve seen of the kinds of bans that we’re talking about, the focus is really on fire danger and that’s what we’ve been talking about in this conversation. I’m curious how much you’ve considered other issues, like people with PTSD, or scared kids, or pets. It’s made particularly salient when a caller comes in and talks about exploding bombs over people’s houses.

Buch: I hear the issue of noise often when it comes to fireworks. I’ve been so ingrained in wildfire recovery and safety since the Holiday Farm Fire, that my main point of view comes from a safety measure. I can’t discount the claims that folks truly are afraid, or have other side effects to the noise. But it wasn’t the impetus for me bringing this forward to our board in particular.

Miller: Melanie Kebler, how important are non-fire issues to you as you think about both this emergency ban, and the potential for a permanent ban of some kind being put in place in Bend?

Kebler: I think I agree. I come from the same place that Heather does, the main impetus for me is really wildfire danger, and just understanding how lucky Bend has been not to have something like a Holiday Farm Fire come through our town. So that’s my main focus, but I absolutely understand and agree that another important policy effect is to reduce some of this noise and disruption that can be fairly harmful, especially to people with PTSD, pets, and young children. I think that’s something to consider as well when we’re looking at this policy.

Miller: We did ask listeners on Facebook, what do you think about banning fireworks where you live? Many people said they’re in favor of the idea. Taylor Taylor said “Fireworks shows should only be conducted by trained professionals,” Dan Gartman said “I think maybe we should have designated areas for personal fireworks to be lit off. I get why people wouldn’t like this idea, but people have lost everything because of fireworks. We have to do something different.”

Heather Buch, my understanding is that there are already bans on fireworks tied to fire season in two parts of Lane County right now. How does it work? How has it worked before your new proposal?

Buch: Currently, if one of our state foresters in either of our two districts by ODF declares fire season, then there are different levels that fire season can have, varying levels of bans of different kinds of fireworks and other kinds of fires that go on. But there is this huge wedge in the middle of Lane County that is not covered by either of those districts. And that is where the county can come in and also bring in prohibition of fireworks, should that be needed, and there be a fire season designated. It’s important to cover all of our county and not just portions of it.

Miller: So if I understand correctly, under the ordinance, if the Oregon Department of Forestry declared fire season in some part of Lane County, going forward, fireworks would be prohibited for any unincorporated part of Lane County, until fire season were declared over.

Buch: Yes, that’s how it is currently drafted.

Miller: So why exclude cities from this conversation? I read in the Register Guard that there is already a ban in place in South Eugene, but not in other cities in Lane County. Why exclude cities?

Buch: For me, it was important to make the differentiation that unincorporated Lane County just does not have the same kinds of fire resources that cities do. Cities usually have a fire EMS team that is better staffed and can respond quickly within a certain geographic region should something come up. But in the unincorporated area which is so large in Lane County, we have very few resources, and those resources normally are on call for really important, critical work that’s otherwise happening. If we strap them with a particular fire due to a fireworks event, then there really isn’t anybody left to go to those other calls that are continuing to come in. And I wanted to be able to give cities the opportunity to be able to choose for themselves what they would like to do regarding fireworks in their own communities. If they choose to ban them in their communities as well, then we could offer a template on how it works in the county, should this be passed.

Miller: Melanie Kebler, I wanted to run one more voice mail by you. Here it is.

Patrick Douglas: This is Patrick Douglas from Bend, Oregon. I agree, we should remove fireworks from 4th of July. But, I like my fireworks. So here’s a counterproposal to the politicians who want to remove our fireworks from us, because it’s devilishly easy for a politician to remove the thing. It’s almost impossible for them to add something back. Give us our fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Then, everybody has their cake and eat it too. I like that plan. How about you?

Miller: Melanie Kebler, we have about a minute left. But what do you think about that proposal?

Kebler: Sure. I think that that’s something we’re going to be discussing as a council coming up when we’re working through this policy. We’re already talking about keeping our public displays from professionals on July 4th, should there be an opportunity on New Year’s Eve, also for fireworks? Again, balancing safety for the community, including some of those other side effects of fireworks. But I’m open to considering that. I think we are just going to have to start adapting in the new climate that we’re in. Bend being in a high desert, these increasingly more dangerous fire seasons, we are going to start to need to develop new traditions. And I think the city council is definitely open to that.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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