Oregon City, Gladstone's worsening trouble with people breaking state fireworks laws can look to Milwaukie, Happy Valley

Firefighters are bracing for what could be another raucous July 4, as people's pent-up pandemic energy could combine with drought conditions to create an entirely preventable tinderbox.

Capt. Shaun Davis said police would like to put Oregon City citizens on notice about state laws that prohibit use or possession of aerial fireworks. OCPD's minimum number of patrolling cops is four officers available to respond at any given time, and Davis said that citizens can expect double that number on duty the evening of July 4.

"It is illegal to set off aerial fireworks, and you can have your fireworks confiscated and receive a civil penalty," Davis said. "All fireworks are dangerous, and this year could be really dangerous because of the (heightened) fire danger."

Davis said that OC police will be prioritizing firework calls that involve illegal aerial fireworks in areas near houses that could pose a danger to life and property, with lesser priority to a call about someone setting off fireworks in an abandoned parking lot. But if there's another call at the same time that involves a suspect with a weapon, for example, averting a potential assault in progress would take priority over the illegal fireworks.

"Every call is different, and it all depends on what else we're responding to at the time," Davis said. "If you see something that appears to be dangerous, please call 911 right away."

Oregon City and Gladstone's intensifying problem with people breaking state laws against aerial fireworks can look to Milwaukie, Happy Valley and Lake Oswego, which have local ordinances and extra patrols tamping down lawbreakers. Possession or use of illegal fireworks possession is a state crime, but the local ordinances add a civil fine as another tool for city police forces to enforce the law.

Dan Holladay, the Oregon City mayor recalled by voters last year in part due to his canceled plan to host an illegal fireworks show, renewed calls to pass an Oregon City fireworks ordinance, but it might be too late for this year. City Councilor Lisa Batey noted that "Milwaukie didn't try to reinvent the wheel in terms of defining what an illegal firework is," because city officials just used the state law in crafting a local ordinance.

COURTESY PHOTO - Last year marked the first time in nearly two decades that Happy Valley did not hold its traditional Fourth of July festival."It's like people are stir crazy, and there was definitely an uptick in illegal fireworks last year," Batey said.PMG FILE PHOTO - Most traditional Fourth of July events have been canceled, but illegal fireworks proliferate.

In 2017, Milwaukie's City Council enacted an ordinance that enabled its police department to ticket fireworks-law violators up to $1,000. Police and code-enforcement officials who are motivated to respond to those who buy and use illegal fireworks are a critical component of combating the problem, Batey added.

"Happy Valley is the better poster child than Milwaukie is, because they handle it through their code enforcement, and they do a lot public education and outreach," she said.

Former Gladstone City Councilor Neal Reisner agreed that the past two Independence Days have been increasingly worse in terms of illegal fireworks in Clackamas County. Veterans and people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder are especially at risk, said Patti Jay, a Clackamas County veteran and advocate reporting that a large percentage of veterans would like to ban fireworks.

"Noise is a livability concern, just like people leaving their trash in their yard, or leaving graffiti and broken glass near the street," Reisner said. "In Gladstone, I'd at least like to see the fire marshal going around town on July 4 handing out fines to violators."

Tammy Owen, the public information officer for Clackamas Fire, spoke about fireworks safety recently with KOIN 6 News. She told reporters that people should call 911 right away if they see fires.

"We want people to have a great time, but we want them to be safe in doing so," Owen said.

According to state law, officials may seize illegal fireworks and charge offenders with a class B misdemeanor, which could result in a fine of up to $2,500 per violation and a civil penalty of up to $500. Those who misuse fireworks or allow fireworks to cause damage are liable and may be required to pay fire suppression costs or other damage. Parents also are liable for fireworks damage caused by their children.

You can blame a teen with illegal fireworks for the nearly 50,000-acre wildfire in 2017 that burned Eagle Creek and much of the Columbia River Gorge. And according to the Humane Society, on the Fourth of July many pets become so frightened by the noise and commotion of fireworks that they run from otherwise familiar environments and people, and sadly become lost. 

Lake Oswego Fire Department also is offering fire safety tips for lighting and discarding fireworks.

"The biggest thing is we want to make sure people are only using legal-in-Oregon fireworks that are purchased in the state of Oregon from a licensed retailer," said Fire Marshal Gert Zoutendijk.

Legal fireworks, Zoutendijk said, are ones that don't travel more than 6 feet on the ground, more than 12 inches in the air or explode.

If people opt to have a block party and light fireworks, Zoutendijk reminds them to supervise children, be aware of dry vegetation, use a lighting stick and be mindful of neighbors or animals that have issues with loud noises.

"If you find fireworks or if you notice you have fireworks that did not light or are duds, definitely don't relight them because the fuse is way shorter or unpredictable," Zoutendijk said.

To dispose of fireworks, soak them in water overnight and then throw them away.PMG PHOTO - The fireworks display at Oregon's Airshow of the Cascades, Jefferson County's signature event.

Last year, Zoutendijk said, there was a Lake Oswegoan who disposed of used fireworks in a garbage can without first soaking them in water. This caused a major house fire with more than $500,000 worth of damage.

"Fortunately they all got out and escaped OK, but it could have gotten a lot worse," he said.

Lake Oswego enforces the minimum $500 fine for those who light illegal fireworks, but enforcement is spotty in other areas of the county. The council also recently passed an ordinance authorizing the LOFD chief and Zoutendijk to enact a burn ban within the city, which includes the sale of fireworks, if fire conditions reach the extreme category in Oregon.

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