Lake Oswego City Council gives nod to fire prevention education program
When the Lake Oswego City Council developed its annual goals at the start of the year, one of them was to update the city's fireworks and outdoor fire policies on the heels of last year's devastating wildfires.
During the April 20 City Council meeting, Lake Oswego Fire Chief Don Johnson discussed staff's research into issues related to legal and illegal fireworks, as well as outdoor fires at residential homes.
Though there was no formal vote, councilors expressed general approval of Johnson's recommendation to keep the outdoor policy status quo, ramp up the fire prevention education program and allow staff to return with an ordinance that would give the fire chief or fire marshal the ability to temporarily ban activities involving sparks during weather that creates an extreme risk for fire.
Johnson gave the council four options to consider: maintain the status quo; develop a community education program and/or increase enforcement of existing state law regarding illegal fireworks; enable the fire chief and fire marshal to declare a temporary ban on activities involving sparks during extreme fire seasons; and to ban the sales and personal use of legal fireworks.
Johnson recommended maintaining the current policy in regard to outdoor fires in Lake Oswego. Johnson said in the past 15 years, they've responded to an average of 20 fires in outdoor pits and there's never been an instance where those fires caused a blaze outside the firepit. Johnson said they don't allow bonfires or fires that are considered "dangerous" to the area or residents, so if someone does have unauthorized fires, authorities can issue citations and use it as an "opportunity to educate."
In an effort to further protect Lake Oswego during wildfire season, the city sought input from people via an online survey.
Oregon law deems fireworks illegal if they travel more than 6 feet on the ground or 12 inches in the air — think fireworks that explode and/or fly into the air like mortars, Roman candles and bottle rockets. Legal fireworks, like sparklers or cones, don't move from the ground or explode. These types of fireworks are typically sold around Fourth of July at locations like Safeway and Albertsons in Lake Oswego.
"In May 2013, the City of Lake Oswego enacted City Ordinance 2621 to address the sale, possession, or use of certain fireworks within the City limits," the city's website read. "While it has always been illegal to sell, possess or use these same fireworks in the State of Oregon, this new ordinance makes those actions a City Code violation, which can result in a presumptive fine of $295 or up to $500."
Some Oregon cities like Ashland and Rogue River completely banned legal fireworks, and this possibility was presented to city residents on the survey.
While people largely supported the city increasing education and enforcement against the use of fireworks under the existing state law, more than half of survey participants said the city should not ban the use of legal fireworks. Roughly 81% of people thought the fire chief and fire marshal should be authorized to temporarily ban the use and sale of fireworks during conditions that create extreme fire risk.
Over the past 20 years, Johnson said there were 39 fires related to fireworks — 12 of them relating to legal fireworks, 16 relating to illegal and another four that couldn't be determined.
"The problem seems to be right around the Fourth of July, within the three-week period just centering over the Fourth of July," said Johnson, adding that the fires were all over the map.
Rather than banning legal fireworks, Johnson said he wanted to look at education with regard to disposal and fire prevention. He said enforcement is tough because people often light illegal fireworks on their private property and it's difficult to tell where they originate.
"The Fire Department has undertaken safety education related to the use and disposal of fireworks for many years, typically in the lead up to the 4th of July holiday," the staff report read. "Efforts have ranged from print ads, to flyers, to stories in the local press. Staff is not convinced the efforts had an impact thus far, but staff intends to work with the newly formed City Communications Team to expand the reach through social media, print media, community engagement at City events, and targeted messaging that encourages a Safe and Fire-Free Fourth of July in Lake Oswego."
Councilor Aaron Rapf asked about fines for illegal fireworks and wondered how much the education program would cost.
Johnson said the fire department can't go higher than the state fine, which is up to $1,000.
Pro tem City Attorney Evan Boone said he would look into whether the city could impose a $1,000 fine, which would be an increase from the current $500 fine.
As for the education program, Johnson said that he'd like to pour roughly $8,000 in the budget toward that this year.
"We're coming off a fire season that was horrid last year," Johnson said.
Councilor John Wendland said one thing he heard often last summer was that the city needed a community tool that alerted people of fire danger during the wildfire that hit close to home last fall. He added that he loved the idea of having a curfew for fireworks at 10 p.m. because the noise negatively affects veterans, seniors and animals.
Johnson said the fireworks folks hear late at night are likely illegal anyway, so if the fire department can broaden the education program it may help.
Lake Oswego Fire Marshal Gert Zoutendijk said they do have a public alerting system that has been advertised countywide, but no one received texts last year because the threat level was not high enough to warrant an alert and it would have only caused confusion.
For more information on the survey results and LOFD recommendations, visit the city's website.
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