In the olden days
In the 1950s, my family traveled to the beach for summer vacation, scheduled to coincide with the Fourth of July because we loved fireworks and the celebratory atmosphere in Long Beach. We kids had bottle rockets and firecrackers. Snakes, a thrilling (ha ha) thing you lighted with a punk, grew into a black smoky extrusion curling out from a tiny pellet. Firecrackers lit under cans made them jump in the air. Bottle rockets — lit from the neck of a bottle — zoomed up with a bang. Roman Candles shot flaming balls 20 feet in the air. And, of course, with sparklers at night you could spell words, maybe the name of a secret boyfriend.
All this, though still dangerous — there were burns, hearing loss, an occasional hand injury — is nothing compared to what we now experience. The “Holy Nishiki” ($120-200 — send your check directly to China), with 24 five-inch canister shells that shoot 220 feet in the air, is called the “Mother of All Bombs.” And what about magnum blasts, predator shells, and reloadable mortar kits, with names like Special Ops, Full Metal Jacket, Open Fire, Seal Team 9, and Cross Fire? In short, the family firework celebrations of the past, much romanticized, have morphed into war zone scenes.
Most earthly occurrences, natural or human-made — the Holocaust, climate change, beach accretion, burrowing shrimp — happen incrementally. So this fireworks problem crept up on us over time: it’s complicated and will take some sorting out. But a group of unusually dedicated citizens saw the problems years ago, formed “Not a Ban, A Better Plan,” and met every week — every week! — for two years beginning in 2015.
Among other things, they created, distributed, compiled and shared data from two fireworks surveys and found that an overwhelming percentage of both citizens and business owners wanted either more restrictions on fireworks or a complete ban. NABABP brought together, for the first time, State Parks (they have jurisdiction over our beach), Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Patrol, our sheriff and local police, fire chiefs, mayors of LB and Ilwaco, commissioners and the public. The group recommended three days of fireworks sales and discharge, with a future step-down to one day. It was a compromise the committee could live with.
The recommendation was shut down for lack of political will on the part of our local officials. “We came so close — we gave it our best shot,” said committee member Vicki Vanneman. State Parks did mandate no overnight beach camping — a good change but not nearly enough.
By the numbers
We don’t have a good way of counting visitors over the Fourth. Suffice it to say, at least anecdotally, we were packed. Hotels, cottages, motels, and campgrounds were full, reserved far in advance. Many front yards were entirely covered with RVs, cars, trucks and tents. Problems arose.
The intersection of Ridge and 262nd in Ocean Park was completely blocked by people shooting fireworks in the street. When a resident neighbor approached them to suggest that it was too loud, unsafe and illegal, they said, “We don’t have to kowtow to you. F-off… and we’ll see you next year!”
Another neighbor wrote, “We’re very concerned about all the fireworks and the destruction that is going on. Why can’t we as taxpayers get this stopped? We had fireworks raining down on our metal roof, which woke us up. I went outside and called out to the neighbors to the south of us who don’t live here but own a house. As I’m standing there another one comes down on my VW and in front of our new garage. If our beautiful Monterey Cypress catch on fire the Peninsula will go up like a ball of fire.”
Not every beach visitor is a rude reckless yahoo. Some came to help with the Grassroots Garbage Gang clean-up on July 5th. Many of these newcomers were appalled by what they saw. The Gordon family — all six of them — were on hand at the Klipsan approach. Mom Stacie said, “What do you do when you find a fire? We found two of them still burning.” Other beach cleanup folks have thrown in the towel; they’re angry and see the effort as simply enabling.
This year’s refuse exceeded anything in the past. Dumpster pick-ups on July 5th and July 6th totaled 39.86 tons. (This does not count what was washed into the ocean on the evening high tides or dealt with by private citizens in their own trash containers.) Tonnage over the years: ourbeach.org/garbage-factoids.
A story about money
Let me put on my economics hat for a moment to discuss the financial aspects of the fireworks situation. (I worked at the Federal Reserve Bank in both San Francisco and Los Angeles before moving to Citicorp — 10 years in banking.) If a business sells products but the real-world costs of the enterprise are not accounted for in its bottom line, those additional costs are called “externalities” — meaning other people and organizations pay those costs. It’s a cost-shifting maneuver.
In this case, the burden (costs) of the fireworks chaos and clean-up is not being born by those who benefit most. Our grocery stores, bakeries, ice cream parlors, candy shops, firework tents (any commodity-based business) can staff up and, with sufficient inventory, will benefit from an increase in tourists. But not all businesses benefit equally. When a hotel, motel, or Airbnb cottage is full — their financial benefit is capped at that maximum. More tourists don’t help them. And some businesses simply had to close during the Fourth. Dawnya Davis at the Grooming Garage had her hands full with freaked-out dogs, many seriously affected.
And, tell me, how do we residents benefit?
The real costs of eight days of fireworks are being transferred to other areas in our community. In hard dollars, the tipping costs are partially covered by grants from state agencies. Shelly Pollock, beach clean-up founder, says their organization receives $7,000 annually from State Parks for dumpsters and materials. Individuals and some businesses donate as well.
But this year there were five dumpster fires. Jay Alexander, owner of Peninsula Sanitation, said the costs to the county for pick-up, repair and repainting of the damaged dumpsters was $4,085. Jay also remarked that some people take advantage of the placement of these dumpsters. “People know when the dumpsters arrive. My guys have told me that sometimes people are waiting in trucks to dump other stuff. And at our recycle sites, we often see couches, mattresses, sometimes appliances. My opinion — no personal fireworks.”
Jacob Brundage, Ocean Park fire chief, says we got lucky this year — we had no out-of-control fires. Ten misty days preceding the Fourth helped. But still, “We always staff up. On both July 3rd and 4th we had two extra people on overtime. And we had volunteers doing rotating shifts. After the Fourth we put out beach fires. Russ Lewis color-codes them. [This year Russ, a garbage gang volunteer, marked 40 fires.] We ‘pull the cap off’ [many fires are buried and still burning] and extinguish the materials directly. We also had someone pull a couch into the dune grass and light it on fire.”
“We have a great group of volunteers during beach clean-up — but what message are we sending about our community? I’m not sure I fully understand the hesitation by the county to limit the number of days for discharge. I think we need to have the latitude, if we have an extremely dry period of time, to call a partial ban. Public firework displays can be handled more safely.” (This year Long Beach cancelled their public display.)
What will it take?
As other cities and counties ban fireworks — obviously the trend — we will have greater numbers of disrespectful out-of-towners here misbehaving. Our Peninsula is beautiful; the beach is magical — we will still have plenty of tourists enjoying long holiday weekends, even without fireworks. Our businesses will still do well.
And imagine if the funds for firework clean-up could be used to benefit our community in other ways. Increased educational experiences for our kids? Elder support? More art? Shelly is working to grow a $100,000 fund to make the beach clean-up sustainable for the long-term. What if we were also growing a fund to tackle our housing issues?
Changes need to be made.
Meeting to discuss the Long Beach Peninsula fireworks issue: July 28 at 6 p.m. at Pacific Co. Fire District No. 1 station in Ocean Park. (26110 Ridge Ave.) Attendees must show their vaccination card. (Required by the fire department.) Also, see the Facebook site: Better beaches & Byways.