Our state's fireworks law needs updating
Last updated 7/6/2023 at 11:53am
Like most Americans, I enjoy watching – and lighting – fireworks on Independence Day.
America’s “birthday” should stand out among all national holidays. And the colorful, aerial explosions showcase the freedom and independence for which the U.S. stands.
But why then do only tribes have the ability to sell and use the “good” fireworks – you know: firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, mortars and more. There’s nothing magical about the imaginary line on a map suggesting fireworks perform differently on a reservation or tribal trust land.
Whether you are on or off a reservation, fireworks can start fires and cause injuries. They also provide great entertainment, as well as make Independence Day look and feel more important.
In short, fireworks have the same effects on and off a reservation.
But tribal leaders see fireworks differently than do our bureaucrats in Olympia. Most tribes see fireworks as a source of pride, as well as a source of revenue for individual tribal members and the tribe as a whole.
Off reservation, the fireworks decision is political.
Under state law, Revised Code of Washington 70.77 makes fireworks legal in Washington State. In fact, subsection 70.77.111 says the intent is to regulate, not prohibit, the sale and use of fireworks.
The law gives the Washington State Patrol’s top bureaucrat the ability to “regulate” fireworks sale and use in the state. And by regulate, I mean it gives the chief the ability to prohibit certain fireworks, under the guise of so-called safety.
According to Revised Code of Washington 70.77.575, the chief is required to create a list of fireworks that can be sold and discharged in the state by Oct. 1 each year. And by Nov. 1, the chief is required to notify manufacturers, wholesalers and importers what they are allowed to have available here the following year.
Essentially, the Washington State Patrol chief gets to decide what millions of Washingtonians can and cannot use on the Fourth of July.
Except, in reality, he doesn’t.
Thousands — if not millions — of Washingtonians head to reservations each year to buy personal fireworks.
Non-tribal residents flock to “Firecracker Alley” between Tacoma and Puyallup to buy what they can’t purchase at their neighborhood fireworks stand off reservation. In Toppenish, a fireworks flea market pops up at the end of every June, attracting celebratory enthusiasts from across the state.
While these areas are within cities, they are also on reservations. Likewise, individual tribal stands open in the cities of Omak, Coulee Dam, Hunters, Neah Bay, Nespelem, Usk, and the list goes on.
And just across the state line in Idaho, you’ll find many non-tribal Washingtonians lined up to purchase personal aerial fireworks on Coeur d’Alene tribal lands.
State fireworks laws simply do not apply on reservations here.
A federal court decided in the 2019 case Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation v. Klickitat County that non-tribal officers cannot enforce a fireworks ban on-reservation.
So, Washington state has a different set of fireworks rules for tribal fireworks users than non-tribal folks.
That’s prompted some communities to take a different approach to enforcing fireworks laws.
Rather than have law enforcement chase fireworks calls, some communities have designated discharge areas where residents can bring personal fireworks to launch under the watchful eyes of local fire and emergency crews.
The idea has led to fewer fires and fewer injuries there. It’s also opened the door to fantastic personal fireworks displays, while reducing costs to communities that may not otherwise be able to afford a professional pyrotechnician.
Those local decisions haven’t resolved the disparity between tribal and non-tribal residents in our state. But they have been a successful way for many residents and communities to celebrate more safely, without turning regular Washingtonians into misdemeanor offenders.
Clearly, the state fireworks law needs rewritten so non-tribal residents can celebrate as vigorously — and as legally —as those Washingtonians living on reservations.
— Roger Harnack is the owner/publisher of Free Press Publishing. Email him at [email protected].