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.
“Oh my God,” the text message read. “I saw the fire trucks. Are you guys OK?”
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
“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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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?”
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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?â
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,ââ 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
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
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
“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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
tells the Vancouver City Council that if it passes a ban like Oregon’s,
it will be destroying all fireworks business in the city.
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?”
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.
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
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.
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
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
But we also understand the allure—the burning colors, smells of spent gunpowder, the percussion of the blast.
âAwesome,â we say.
After the second Excalibur explodes, the Camas police cars pull up.
âDo you guys have any idea how illegal you are right now?â 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 donât 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 donât cite us.
âYou get out of here,â the younger officer says, âand weâll call it a night.â
They let us take our unexploded mortars back to our car and drive back across the river.
Theyâve decided this is Oregonâs problem.