PORTLAND, Ore. — The Fourth of July is just around the corner, sparking inevitable questions about the legality of consumer fireworks in the Portland area.
The Portland region has traditionally allowed residents to set off their own Independence Day pyrotechnics, but increasingly hot and dry summer weather is forcing local governments to change their approaches.
The patchwork of regulations across the metro area's cities and counties is enough to leave any Portlander confused, especially now that the rules can change from year to year — after the heat dome in late June 2021, for example, many metro area governments issued one-time emergency bans.
We set out to get a clear answer for Independence Day 2023, starting with the biggest city in the metro area: Portland itself.
Are consumer fireworks banned in Portland?
Yes, all fireworks are banned in the City of Portland, except at licensed professional shows. It is illegal to sell or use consumer fireworks anywhere in the city.
WHAT WE FOUND
The Portland City Council passed an ordinance in March 2022 that permanently bans the sale and use of all consumer fireworks within the city limits, with no exception for Independence Day. Even devices as simple as sparklers are now illegal, which is a notable change from prior years.
"We've limited aerial pyrotechnics from the recreational user for quite some time, but historically, up until last year, we permitted ground-based firework celebrations," said Rick Graves, public information officer for Portland Fire & Rescue.
This year, anyone who sets off consumer fireworks in Portland is risking citations and fines or even jail time if they accidentally start a fire or injure someone, Graves said. Fire officials are urging Portlanders to get their pyrotechnic fix at professional shows, such as the one at the Waterfront Blues Festival.
However, Graves stressed that residents should not call 911 to report illegal firework use, and should instead submit reports online or call the non-emergency help line at 503-823-3333.
"Our 911 system is currently under pressure as a result of all the emergency response calls we get," he said, "and if we add on top of that calls to report illegal fireworks, we're putting true emergencies, if you will, on the back burner."
Greater Portland area
Beyond the Portland city limits, it's best to check the rules for your specific city or county if you plan to set off fireworks. Vancouver and Milwaukie both have total bans on consumer fireworks, but other metro area cities and counties still allow pyrotechnics as long as they comply with state law.
Oregon law prohibits devices that fly in the air or explode, such as firecrackers, bottle rockets and cherry bombs, but the state doesn't have the authority to ban fireworks altogether. Ground-based devices like sparklers, smoke bombs and fountain-style fireworks are legal unless individual cities or counties ban them.
Washington state law is more permissive, allowing certain aerial consumer devices like spinners, shells and mortars. But while it's easy for Portlanders to hop across the river and buy them in Clark County, that doesn't mean it's ok to bring them back and use them.
"If you purchase fireworks somewhere and you live in Portland, please use those fireworks where you purchased them," Graves said. "Don't bring it back into the city of Portland and endanger this community."
Even in places where ground-based fireworks are permitted, firefighters still urge residents to be cautious and aware of the risks. Make sure people and pets are secure, and have a hose or bucket of water on standby.
"Be careful about where you're using fireworks if you choose to," said Captain Andrew Klein with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. "Stay away from areas with dry grass that could easily catch fire. We've had some pretty big fires caused by fireworks because of that."
Rising fire danger
Portland followed Oregon's lead on fireworks until recently, with local enforcement targeted mainly at illegal aerial devices.
But June 2021 brought a record-breaking heat dome event that massively increased the risk of accidental fires just before the traditional start of the firework sale period. Portland responded with an emergency total ban, and it wasn't alone — even Clark County opted to throw cold water on consumer fireworks that year.
The emergency ban was a one-off, but it highlighted the fact that Portland's summer weather is getting hotter and drier, and there's been a corresponding increase in fires set off by consumer pyrotechnics.
"We've seen tremendous numbers of fires as a result of inappropriate and unsafe firework use, the to point where we've had deaths, losses of structures, environmental impacts," Graves said.
With another dry summer on the way in 2022, the fire bureau recommended a permanent ban on consumer fireworks, and the Portland City Council agreed.
The city saw an exceptionally damaging Independence Day season in 2020, bureau officials told the council last year, with 233 fires in just a few weeks, 44 of which were caused by fireworks. The numbers were substantially lower for the same period in 2021 after the emergency ordinance was put in place.
Even ground-based devices can set off highly destructive fires, Portland fire chief Sara Boone noted during the council testimony — the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge was sparked by a legal smoke bomb.
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