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Lake Oswego cracks down on illegal fireworks


Ordinance boosts power to enforce the law

by: SUBMITTED - When Lakeridge High School's graduating class of 2012 released illuminated sky lanterns last year, Lake Oswego police and firefighters allowed them, despite reports of possible UFOs floating above the city. The city has since learned that the state fire marshal now classifies those lanterns as illegal fireworks.Lake Oswego residents could face fines if caught with illegal fireworks this Fourth of July.

Firefighters and police officers can now cite fireworks scofflaws with penalties of up to $500 thanks to a new city ordinance. Approved by the city council on May 21, the ordinance only tightens restrictions on fireworks already prohibited by state laws.

But it steps up public safety officials’ abilities to enforce those rules.

In the past, they mostly relied on education and confiscation, Lake Oswego Fire Marshal Phil Sample said. Without a city ordinance, their main avenue for discouraging repeat fireworks offenders was an administrative process through the state fire marshal’s office. Citing someone required a trip to Salem, taking an official out of service for up to half a day.

“The whole thing was so cumbersome that nobody in Lake Oswego was using the process,” Sample said.

The new ordinance eases enforcement efforts because tickets will now be processed in Lake Oswego’s municipal court rather than the state fire marshal’s office in Salem.

What’s legal? As before, residents can use fireworks producing only smoke or sparks to their hearts’ content. That means various sparkling fountains, sparklers, Ground Bloom Flowers, Piccolo Petes and handheld candle fountains are OK to sell, use and possess. Also on the safe list are novelty items like party poppers and Pop-Its.

Fine-worthy fireworks include any that eject fire balls, explode, fly through the air, travel more than 6 feet across the ground or jump 1 foot off the ground. That means Roman Candles, firecrackers, mortars, bottle rockets and similar aerial objects are all outlawed, as are explosives like cherry bombs.

Newer on the trouble list are illuminated sky lanterns. The glowing orbs have been increasingly popular at weddings and other celebrations in recent years. Made of paper and suspended over a flame, the lanterns rise thanks to the heated air inside and are carried away by wind.by: SUBMITTED - This pile of illegal fireworks was among items seized by the Lake Oswego Fire Department one summer. Fire officials and police officers plan to step up enforcement beyond confiscation and education to ticket illegal fireworks users this year.

They’re illegal, according to state law, because they travel vertically off the ground by more than 12 inches. Using them requires a special display permit from the state — the same type of permit required for big fireworks displays like the annual Fourth of July celebration over Oswego Lake.

By Sample’s estimates, the fire and police departments seize anywhere from a car-trunk-size load to an entire bed of a pickup truck worth of the illegal stuff each summer. The fireworks are then stored in a secure brick facility until a Portland-based bomb squad can pick them up for disposal.

And though he acknowledged legal fireworks also pose fire danger, he said illegal aerial fireworks cause the most destruction.

In the past five years in Lake Oswego, fireworks have sparked about 40 fires, ranging from small bark-dust fires to blazes that burn down homes. The city sees about 135 fires of all sorts each year, according to the fire department.

Illegal fireworks ignited flames that destroyed roofs and second stories of some homes in recent years. In another case, an entire duplex burned down.

“It’s a serious matter, and it does happen,” Sample said. “What we generally see with potentially significant fires from fireworks are bottle rockets and mortars — things that fly in the air ... in neighborhoods where homes have wood shake roofs.”

He noted that state law makes parents responsible for damages their children cause while using illegal fireworks.

The department doesn’t track statistics involving fireworks-related injuries, but Sample believes those are also more common than people realize.

He stressed that even legal products can cause injuries, especially when brandished by young children.

“A sparkler is 1,200 degrees,” Sample said. “We’re not suggesting people shouldn’t have fireworks, but they should certainly supervise their children with them.”