Commissioners, fire chiefs discuss alerting residents of potential regulations well in advance of July 4

PMG FILE PHOTO - Most traditional Fourth of July events were canceled in 2021, but illegal fireworks proliferated.Clackamas County commissioners this week discussed the potential for a temporary firework ban during high-heat periods in unincorporated zones.

County officials will monitor Oregon Department of Forestry data through April and reconvene with Clackamas Fire authorities before May 1 to determine an official plan and outreach strategy.

To avoid repeating last year's short notice and rushed decision, commissioners hope to alert residents of the firework ban earlier ahead of July 4. County board members on April 5 discussed the plan for potential regulations with Clackamas Fire Chief Nick Browne and Canby Fire Chief Jim Davis, who also chairs the county's Fire Defense Court.

Fire authorities advised the board to clearly reference Oregon Department of Forestry fire safety metrics as the basis for any plan it ends up approving, as it provides an up-to-date indicator of potential dangers, which they said can arise quickly and unexpectedly.

Clackamas County on June 30, 2021, banned the use of fireworks throughout unincorporated areas through July 10, 2021, citing increased risk of wildfires amid high-drought conditions. Multiple cities throughout the Metro region passed similar bans last year.

Chair Tootie Smith on Tuesday said she intends to avoid "an 11th-hour decision" this year, with commissioners and fire authorities concurring that despite the potential for unforeseen circumstances, implementing a proactive plan that is clear and unified is a priority.

"It shouldn't be a last-minute call," said Commissioner Paul Savas on Tuesday, adding, "people have plans, and people actually use this as fundraising; people have firework stands, you have Boy Scouts, you have a number of nonprofits that are trying to do their best. I mean, to leave them hanging, and to just interrupt that, is problematic for them."PMG FILE PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Big Bang Fireworks employees Keagan Cloud (left) and Stone Rathbun?were relieved that their pop-up business in Oregon City didn't face a ban on using sparklers within city limits last year.

A potential decision deadline of June 15 was briefly discussed but ultimately rejected by county officials in favor of a sooner May 1 deadline, when fire officials will advise the board on a plan based on safety metrics from the forestry department.

Meteorologists for the department and the regional Fire Environment Working Group monitor factors — including fuel moisture, fuel content, temperature and weather — that affect wildfire risk and behavior, referencing maps visualizing data based on a scale of "low" to "extreme" fire risk.

Daniel Nibouar, deputy disaster manager for the county, said during the meeting that drought conditions are being detected earlier this year than last, with "large portions of the state as a whole in high-drought conditions," with low drought conditions seen in southernmost areas of the county.

"At this time last year, none of the county was in a drought condition," he continued, adding that the department is predicting April through June to favor "below-average precipitation and water supply for the county, and the summer outlook is looking to be above-average temperature-wise and below-average for precipitation. So unfortunately, we are looking at continuing trends to heading more into drought."

County board members have the authority to implement total firework bans within unincorporated county zones, however, it is up to each city to determine regulations for their own jurisdictions. Milwaukie, Happy Valley and Lake Oswego all have local ordinances and extra patrols tamping down lawbreakers. Possession or use of illegal aerial 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, whether the local regulations target aerial fireworks or all fireworks.

Commissioners said various regulations in jurisdictions countywide can lead to confusion when not communicated clearly.

"I think it'd be incumbent upon all of us as jurisdictions to come up with a public messaging, or some kind of a streamlining, I think we need, frankly, a better system, a better understanding of what that system is, versus being reactionary," Savas said. "If one city wants to do this, and another area wants to do that, people don't know where borders and boundaries are, and there's a lot of apprehension out there."

County and fire officials will continue to closely monitor wildfire risk and weather patterns throughout the upcoming wildfire season, with disaster-management officials telling the board that the department is generally able to predict a "decent" two-week forecast, but things can change quickly and they will reserve the right to alert the board of any information relevant to residents' safety during the season.

Fire officials will return before the board at a policy session in the coming weeks with updated data and recommendations regarding the need for a temporary firework ban in unincorporated areas.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.

Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!