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June 27th, 2012 AARON MESH | Cover Story
 

Fahrenheit 4th of July

Illegal fireworks are exploding in Oregon. Portland’s new fire chief is cracking down.

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You thought it was a victimless crime, a Portland rite of passage.

You drive across the Columbia River, fill your trunk with powerful fireworks that are legal in Washington, and then smuggle them back to Oregon to put on a show.

Erin Janssens says you must stop.

Portland’s new fire chief is hell-bent on extinguishing illegal fireworks this Fourth of July.

“People want to have fun,” she says. “They believe it to be patriotic in some way. But they’re not recognizing that they really don’t have control. I don’t think they realize the impact on others.”

Kat Whitehead and Jasper Shen know what Janssens means.

They spent last Fourth of July comforting their yellow Labrador, Daisy, who panicked so much at the explosions of neighborhood fireworks that she barked and tore around until she started to hyperventilate.

Eventually Whitehead went to bed, exhausted. Shen had collapsed on the couch in his boxers when his cellphone buzzed.

BOMBS OVER BISTRO: Aviary chef and co-owner Kat Whitehead stands in her renovated dining room with a photo of the fire caused by fireworks on the Fourth of July last year.
IMAGE: Jarod Opperman

“Oh my God,” the text message read. “I saw the fire trucks. Are you guys OK?”

Shen didn’t understand the message—and then thought about Aviary, the Northeast Alberta Street restaurant he and Whitehead had opened five months earlier, already gaining a following for dishes such as crispy pig ears.

They dashed the 15 blocks to Aviary, where firefighters on top of the restaurant were throwing off glowing chunks of roof. Heat from the fire and four inches of sooty water from the sprinklers had turned the kitchen and dining room into a muggy swamp. It would take five months and $1 million to repair it.

“Water was pouring out of anything it could pour out of,” Shen says. “It was nobody’s fault—except whoever threw the fireworks.”

This isn’t supposed to happen here. Since 1951, state law has banned most fireworks except in professional displays. 

But fireworks are still exploding in Oregon: Not just bottle rockets and firecrackers, but Roman candles and mortars. As for cherry bombs or ash can M-80s, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives classifies these as homemade explosive devices, and the Oregon Fire Marshal instructs local authorities to call the bomb squad.

The vendors who set up temporary shop in Oregon can sell only ground fireworks, like sparklers and fountains, that don’t launch anything more than a foot in the air.

But Oregonians have a proud tradition of hauling illegal fireworks over the Columbia River from Washington, where they’re legal and create a frantic seasonal border economy. In Clark County, vendors, including the fireworks superstore Blackjack, rake in at least $6 million in a single week.

Nationwide, the fireworks industry moves 200 million pounds a year—most from China—worth $600 million. Despite the dangers, rules against fireworks are being rolled back across the United States. When cities try to tighten controls—as in Vancouver last week—the plans often fizzle with howls of big-government meddling.

Janssens believes she can defy a half-century of history.

Portland’s fire chief believes she can persuade Portlanders to stop setting off banned fireworks—and, if people don’t listen, make sure they get caught.

She thinks she can make the Fourth of July a silent night, except for city-sanctioned shows, and bring some civility back to your neighborhood. The new chief is behind the biggest public-service campaign ever aimed at warning people in the Portland area about fireworks.

She’s already upended convention once this year. On June 5, she became the first female fire chief in the 159-year span of Portland Fire & Rescue—a bureau that had just two other women firefighters when she joined in 1988. 

If Janssens is going to douse illegal fireworks, however, she’ll first need to extinguish a statewide culture. 

“I am an optimist,” Janssens says. “But I’m also tenacious.”


BOTTLING ROCKETS: Portland Fire Chief Erin Janssens, who lives in Corbett and drives a Triumph motorcycle, compares firework use to speeding.
IMAGE: Jarod Opperman

 
Janssens became a firefighter on a dare. Growing up in Boring, she wanted to be a doctor or an architect. At age 20, she tried to convince a friend he should become a firefighter. “You think it would be so great,” he told her, “why don’t you do it?”

“I didn’t know of women being in the fire service,” Janssens says. “Everybody used the term ‘fireman,’ and that’s where I began to really appreciate the power of language.”

When she joined the Portland Fire Bureau in 1988, most of the fire stations didn’t have women’s restrooms, because they didn’t have women. The union—famously an old boys’ network—sued the city in 1994, accusing it of reverse discrimination in job promotions. The suit alleged Janssens’ exam to become a lieutenant didn’t weigh seniority fairly; the case was dismissed a year later.

Some firefighters are still rankled about Janssens’ appointment as chief—City Commissioner Randy Leonard, a former fire union boss, picked her over the rank and file’s preferred choice.

“There’s a lot of people who like her,” says Jerry Alvarez, who recently retired from the Bureau. “There’s a lot of people who don’t. It’s an authoritative thing.”

But Leonard says he appointed Janssens—who most recently worked as the city’s fire marshal—because of how she had stepped up Portland Fire & Rescue’s public-relations barrage against illegal fireworks. “Which I greatly appreciated,” Leonard says, adding, “Firefighters dread the Fourth of July.”

In their hatred of fireworks, Portland firefighters can sometimes sound like hyperbolic worrywarts. (Here’s Bureau spokesman Paul Corah describing a sparkler: “The tip of it is 1,200 degrees. That’s the same temperature as a blowtorch. Would you hand a kid a blowtorch?”) But they have real evidence of destruction.

Last July 4, the Bureau responded to 40 fires, 19 of them caused by fireworks. That’s down from the 10-year high mark in 2004, which saw 75 fires on July 4—55 caused by fireworks. But it’s still more than three times as many fires in a single day as the 12 fires the Bureau sees in an average week. 

For the week preceding the Fourth, fire patrols routinely witness amateur fireworks displays on nearly every corner, with staffing too stretched to cite them all. “It’s like a mini-Vietnam,” says Michael Silva, a senior inspector with Portland Fire & Rescue. “You can’t be fast enough.”

There’s other collateral damage: wildfires. Traumatized war veterans forced to relive the sounds of combat. Injuries and frightened children and scared pets. (Multnomah County Animal Services sees a 25 percent spike in wandering dogs and cats on the week of July 4.) 

Emails to the Bureau from citizens show a lot Portlanders have had enough, too. 

“We have one neighbor on [Northeast] 28th between Tillamook and Hancock who shoots professional-level fireworks from his driveway, until midnight, with risk to cars and houses nearby,” reads one. “He and his buddy, drinks in hand, light one after the other while their children run about and the entire scene feels like an accident waiting to happen. We have asked them, year after year, to please stop—but they refuse.”

“My kids are up, and my dog is petrified, to the point that I need to sedate him,” reads a complaint from Southeast 167th Avenue. “I have a simple question. Is Portland a city where laws are enforced?” 

Aviary’s owners now give a testimonial in a new fire and police training video about fireworks. “We don’t want to be the annoying kids who are ruining everyone’s fun,” Whitehead tells WW. “I think until you’ve been impacted, you think it’s not a big deal. But for us, it was huge.”

The Aviary fire is a poster child for fireworks-caused blazes, but it’s not alone. 

On July 25, 2009, a firework landed in the landscaping outside Four Seasons Beauty Supply at Southeast 122nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard. The salon burst into flames and began to explode. “We just went to bed and heard, ‘Kaboom, kaboom, kaboom,’” a neighbor told KATU. The salon never reopened. 

The next year, on July 4, fireworks debris ignited accumulated dryer lint under an exhaust fan on the roof of Park Place Assisted Living Community near Tualatin. A fire spread into the building’s attic, and the 80 seniors in the residential center were evacuated by staff.

In 2007, a 4-year-old Sherwood boy lit a stash of illegal fireworks in his father’s bedroom closet. The seven other people in the two-story duplex ran outside before realizing the child was still trapped in the room. The boy was the most recent death in Oregon from fireworks.

Janssens didn’t begin the Bureau’s anti-fireworks efforts. Portland Fire & Rescue began a PR campaign in 2006, along with an enforcement program called Operation Lower the Boom. But Leonard says Janssens has taken the most aggressive approach to fireworks of any fire marshal he’s seen in the last 35 years.

Janssens is still moving into the chief’s office in Old Town. Boxes are half unpacked. Commemorative plates are strewn around her desk. A watercolor print of the great San Francisco fire of 1906 is propped against the wall on the floor. 

Janssens talks in the cadences of the NPR shows she listens to during her commute. She could be the host of one of those shows, with her soothing repetitions of words like “impact” and “awareness.” It’s the language of someone who runs a human resources department, not a paramilitary organization. 

“We’re trying to do educational outreach, and give people the opportunity to make a decision,” she says. “And if they continue to disregard other people and the law, then there will be consequences. And most people don’t like the consequences.”

Janssens’ allies and critics in the Fire Bureau agree she possesses two central characteristics: a self-possession in conversation, and a close attention to detail that her supporters call precision and her detractors call micromanaging.

She’s put both of those qualities to use fighting fireworks.

The $70,000-plus educational campaign sees Portland Fire & Rescue partnering for the first time with four other fire departments: Gresham, Clackamas, Lake Oswego and Tualatin Valley. The blitz includes billboards, radio and newspapers (the Bureau is advertising with WW, The Oregonian and The Portland Mercury), movie theater pre-show ads and TriMet bus placards.

Janssens is also giving police more muscle—effectively deputizing every officer as a fire marshal by giving them authority to issue citations and fines. (Police have had only one option before: arrest and book violators.)

“That’s my last-ditch effort,” Janssens says of fines. “Worst-case scenario, if being a good neighbor [isn’t] important to you, then, OK, here’s the law. Because there’s going to be different ways that you reach different people.”

But some very different people are just a bridge away.

BOOMTOWN: Frank McKoy, owner of Blackjack Fireworks in Clark County, will blockade the door of his superstore with a wall of shopping carts to keep out customers before legal sale dates.
IMAGE: Jarod Opperman

 
Frank McKoy is stocking the metal shelves in a section of Blackjack Fireworks he calls “mortar central” with explosives named Packing Heat, One Big S.O.B. and Outta Control. One mortar is titled That’s Your Problem, and shows a cartoon Uncle Sam as a skull with one eyeball. “WARNING,” the labels say. “SHOOTS FLAMING BALLS.”

McKoy, who owns Blackjack, is a burly man with a Santa belly, a week’s worth of stubble on his chin and a personal weakness for a novelty firework called Poopy Puppy: a cardboard puppy that excretes a brightly colored snake out its backside. “That is funny,” McKoy says. “My other stores sell these like hotcakes.”

McKoy was there in 1981 on the day his father opened the now-landmark yellow Blackjack store, easily visible from Interstate 5. “I was 16 years old,” he says. “There were about 150 people waiting in the pouring rain. It was a mob house.” 

Despite the pirate’s face on the store’s billboard, Blackjack isn’t breaking any laws. The store has been operating for 31 years in Clark County, where Washington state law says McKoy can sell a wide range of Roman candles and mortars from June 28 through July 4. Citizens are allowed to set them off only during that week.

But Blackjack makes enough money from that single week to pay the yearly mortgage on its 10,000-square-foot building and surrounding properties. And the vast tents of competitors spring up each summer to wage a price war. Ten days before sales open, banners facing the highway read, “We beat Blackjack every day.”

McKoy now lives outside Austin, Texas, and his family also runs stores in South Dakota and Nevada. He imports his wares from China, and each year in a week’s time sells three to four truckloads at the Washington location.

In the early 1980s, McKoy says Portland police tried to conduct stings of Oregonians buying fireworks in Washington by using undercover detectives to call in Oregon vehicle licenses in the parking lot of Vancouver fireworks stores. 

McKoy says he isn’t encouraging any scofflaws. “What people in Oregon don’t know is you can set them off here [in Washington] and be legal,” McKoy says. “They can go down to the river and light ’em over the river like everybody in Washington does.”

McKoy won’t say how much he rakes in, but the four for-profit tents within Vancouver city limits that compete with him reported $1.1 million in earnings in a week last year, according to city records. The Fort Vancouver National Trust, which oversees nonprofits, estimates that charities’ fireworks stands brought in $5 million in Clark County last year.

The American Pyrotechnics Association says consumer sales of fireworks topped $649 million in 2011—up from $433 million a decade earlier. 

In the last two years, five states looking for new tax revenues relaxed their regulations; Kentucky and Michigan legalized every firework not banned by federal law. 

When officials in Vancouver try to move in the other direction, the idea blows up in their faces. On June 18, the Vancouver City Council intended to pass a fireworks ban just like Oregon’s. 

The proposal would force vendors selling anything but “safe and sane” fireworks—nothing traveling more than a foot in the air—to unincorporated Clark County, where Blackjack operates. 

The Council chambers are packed. The Council hears that Vancouver’s 22 seasonal fireworks stands raise money-—$2.86 million last year in the city limits—for the likes of the Evergreen High School band and a veterans’ organization.

One person who testifies is Brent Pavlicek, general manager of Aurora-based Western Fireworks, which supplies the Vancouver vendors. That’s right: The fireworks sold in Vancouver are imported to the U.S. via Oregon. Western Fireworks is owned by Wayne Scott, a former Oregon House majority leader (R-Canby). It’s Oregon’s largest importer and supplier of fireworks, most of them from China.

Pavlicek tells the Vancouver City Council that if it passes a ban like Oregon’s, it will be destroying all fireworks business in the city.

Among many foes, there is also an unmistakable subtext of culture warfare. A teenager quotes Thomas Jefferson. Another man references Bill O’Reilly. Two people recite the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

It’s as if somebody crossbred gun control with the War on Christmas. “If we didn’t have Fourth of July,” says a man in his 20s, “we wouldn’t have Veterans Day, we wouldn’t have Memorial Day, there wouldn’t be America. Our founding fathers, if they weren’t dead already, I think they’d die.”

The Council caves and, near midnight, rejects the ban by a 6-1 vote. 

Banned fireworks will keep pouring south across the Columbia River from Vancouver. What’s a crusader to do?

Janssens hopes a new generation will think differently.

“What I’m just focusing on is, how can we change the culture here?” Janssens says. “How can we have an impact on Portland? I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if everybody thought the same way we did?”

NO RESERVATIONS: Operators of fireworks stands on the Chehalis Reservation say most of their customers drive up from Oregon.
IMAGE: Aaron Mesh


To better understand how people think about fireworks, we blow some up.

Blackjack hasn’t opened by our deadline, but tribal fireworks stands—not limited as to when they can open—are selling.

So we drive 101 miles to Thunder City Mall, a kind of flea market of fireworks on the Chehalis Reservation outside Oakville, Wash: plywood booths around a parking lot—like little bunkers, or the world’s most depressed county-fair midway—with names such as Bomb Shelter and Pyro-Maniac’s. 

A light rain falls. A lanky boy throws party poppers into the grass. A man outside the square fires rockets into the mist.

At one booth, called War Party, we buy the Excalibur, with its 24 canister shells, four Roman candles, 100 Black Cat bottle rockets, and mortar cakes called Aquarium, Robot Rage and The Hustler. 

Our haul is illegal in Oregon, so we decide to set them off in Washington—although setting them off so early in June isn’t allowed.

At Lacamas Lake Regional Park in Camas, we open with a few cheap and disappointing bottle rockets. Then we shoot a Roman candle that unloads five orange projectiles into the sky out of our hand. It’s louder than we expected, like a missile strafing in a violent ’80s cartoon. 

With night falling, we set up two Excaliburs and light one. The mortar fires a flaming ball 30 feet high, a real pink-and-blue flower of fire blossoms above us, and the finishing boom echoes through the firs. The ashes drift down onto our hair and forehead, like a sacrament on a holy day.

Knowing all that Erin Janssens has told us about fireworks, we ought to feel guilty. And not just because we’re interrupting people’s peace and risking their property.

We might notice that it feels like a political act, in a larger debate about whether our individual good time should trump the quiet society others want to enforce. Knowing the law, the rancor, the border war—being, in short, educated—we might sense that setting off fireworks is taking sides in an endless argument.

But we also understand the allure—the burning colors, smells of spent gunpowder, the percussion of the blast.

“Awesome,” we say. 

Video evidence of our fireworks display in Camas.

After the second Excalibur explodes, the Camas police cars pull up. 

“Do you guys have any idea how illegal you are right now?” an officer asks us.

The officer has a friendly face and a white mustache. He seems less angry than perplexed that we could be so stupid. His partner, a younger man, has a flashlight, which he uses to look over our stash. We explain that we are from Oregon, and we don’t normally get to set these things off. 

We would be legal, the officers tell us, on another day. But not in the park.

The mustached officer says he heard Excalibur from more than a mile away. 

The cops write down a name and address in a notepad, but don’t cite us.

“You get out of here,” the younger officer says, “and we’ll call it a night.” 

They let us take our unexploded mortars back to our car and drive back across the river.

They’ve decided this is Oregon’s problem.

THE CITY THAT FIREWORKS: The author launches a Roman candle in Camas, Wash.
IMAGE: Jarod Opperman

 

 
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