By editorial board • 

Local fireworks response first step on a long road

The Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776, by the Continental Congress formed by the original 13 states, is revered as the foundational document for our nation. We celebrate Independence Day every year to commemorate its signing in Philadelphia at what would later come to be known as Independence Hall in its honor.

But nowhere in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution to follow or any other official document of the United States of America are we commanded to carry it out with explosive and incendiary devices capable of ravaging the land — and certainly not night and day for nearly a full week before and after.

Sadly, that seems to be what it’s come to in many locales around the country, including McMinnville.

State law makes it a crime to set off any firework that explodes, flies into the air or travels more than 12 feet horizontally. That includes bottle rockets and roman candles, firecrackers, mortars and missiles, cherry bombs and M-80s, effectively limiting the field to sparklers, fountains, ground spinners and smoke devices.

But around these parts, flaming blasts disturb the peace, shatter the tranquility and threaten the safety in every neighborhood in town for days on end. The perpetrators pay no heed to rules designed to ensure the “pursuit of happiness” guaranteed in the declaration, unless it’s their personal happiness, based on the juvenile thrill of things that go boom in the night.

Stern action has been taken elsewhere.

Consumer fireworks are under a total ban in the cities of Portland, Vancouver, Salem, Eugene, Tigard, Bend, Redmond and Sisters, among others; counties of Marion, Lane and Deschutes, if not others; and BLM holdings, federal forestlands and state beaches, parks, campgrounds and forests. One of our original 13 states, Massachusetts, even enforces a blanket statewide ban.

To its credit, the McMinnville Police Department created a special two-man response team this year to address the peak period for wanton lawbreakers, from 9 on the night of the Fourth itself. But as officers candidly and commendably conceded afterward, they badly underestimated the extent of the problem.

By the time the dedicated duo reported for duty, there were already 30 to 40 complaints pending, and the backlog soared toward triple digits during the first two hours of their shift. The deluge ensued despite a deeply rooted conviction that complaints would go for naught, based on a long tradition of local tolerance.

The team leader, Sgt. Cully Desmond said, “There were so many going off, we were chasing down what was happening right in front of us as we tried to go from one call to another.” He said it became “nearly impossible” to respond to the formal complaints.

According to Chief Matt Scales, the team got “hammered,” finding the torrent of “illegal fireworks being set off was overwhelming.” He said that led him to believe, “This will continue to be an uphill battle.”

Uphill, yes. But totally intractable, no.

We think it’s going to take:

n A lot more noise a lot further in advance on local enforcement plans, and from a much wider civic leadership circle, including the mayor and city councilors.

n Commitment of more resources over a more extensive period of time, challenging as that may seem for a department we’ve viewed for decades as understaffed.

Setting off shattering blasts of heat, light and sound, particularly in the wee hours when the rest of us are trying to get some badly needed sleep beside our traumatized pets, doesn’t pass the celebration test. That’s doubly true when the Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning for much of Oregon’s populous Willamette Valley, due to tinder dry conditions.

Fireworks can blow off fingers, put out eyes and set roofs, siding and trees ablaze. They can traumatize PTSD-suffering veterans who fought for our freedom.

We can see the appeal for testosterone-fueled adolescent boys. But adults should have more regard for the safety and sanity of fellow residents of their community, as the consequences are real.

Portland reported three deaths in 15 fireworks conflagrations in July 2021. In 2017, a single incident torched almost 50,000 acres in the scenic Columbia River Gorge.

Shelters report an average 25% increase in stray arrivals over the Fourth of July. And human firework injuries are legion.

Personal rights are not absolute. They cannot be allowed to unduly, unfairly and unreasonably infringe on the rights of others, and that’s what we have here.

A selfish few are spoiling a glorious holiday for everyone else. And it demands a concerted response.

As we argued last year in this space, “The joy illegal fireworks create for diehard fans is dwarfed by the pain, risk, cost and discomfort they impose on the rest of us. Is mere compliance with state law and city ordinance too much to ask?”