Manslaughter by Fireworks

Two fires in unincorporated King County that killed or critically wounded residents following Fourth of July celebrations have been linked to fireworks, according to fire officials.

A fire near Seattle’s Highline neighborhood left one man dead the night of the Fourth and two homes engulfed in flames, according to a tweet from King County Fire District 20.

Roland Kennedy, 70, died from smoke inhalation, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. His death was ruled an accident.

Fireworks to blame for deadly Highline house fire …, Seattle Times

Our family has owned a home and lived in the Renton Fairwood area for over twenty years now. Over those twenty plus years we have observed the study increase in the volume and lethal power of dangerous fireworks[1] being shot off in our closely packed neighborhood. As the volume of fireworks being shot off in our neighborhood continued to substantially increased so too did the danger of deadly house fires increase over time, until on the Fourth of July 2018, while our daughter and future son-in-law were practicing their wedding dance in our backyard as we all enjoyed the evening dinner amidst a increasing volume of explosions we heard firetruck sirens come roaring into our block in response to a neighbor’s home set on fire by a firework that landed on his roof and set it ablaze. Luckily, it was caught in time and fire fighters were able to get there soon enough to put it out. But not everyone, as we see in the opening Seattle Times quote above, was so lucky.

Our Neighbor’s Home with shake roof set on fire on Fourth of July 2018
Nextdoor.com: Loss of property & life foreseen …

Later that same Fourth of July evening I observed a neighbor on my block putting on a rather big firework show of clearly illegal fireworks purchased from the Indian Reservation. When I directly asked him if these were legal fireworks or the illegal ones purchased from the Reservation he rather coyly avoided the question. They were clearly not purchased from the local fireworks stand. Among this large display was a plate of mortars that shot into the air and rattled windows with huge explosions. I note that early that evening while speaking with one of the fireman who responded to our neighbors fire (above), remarked as the explosions were going off around us, “[boom!] That’s a felony, [boom!] that’s a felony!” and told me to contact Governor Jay Inslee and ask him why the ban on illegal fireworks is not being enforced?

Nextdoor.com: Illegal fireworks

I note that earlier I had attempted to get some clarification on which fireworks were legal and which were illegal, but found the existing laws vague despite the clear prohibition of fireworks purchased on the Reservations. The problem is that some fireworks (the so-called legal ones) are being sold in local firework stands that rent space in our local Safeway parking lots. And indeed, these stands sold mortars which are difficult to differentiate from the ones purchased on the Reservation vs. local fireworks stands. Even though there are statements from the various King County sites claiming that “If it has a stick or fins and goes up, or if it blows up, it is illegal in Washington State,” the laws as currently written make it virtually impossible for King County Sheriffs to effectively enforce the law.

To make matters worse, that same evening I witnessed the distraught homeowner whose home had been set on fire by illegal fireworks drive by the neighbor’s illegal firework show and ask him to stop. This neighbor, rather than seeing the gravity of the situation and having any empathy, chose instead to attempt to minimize and intimidate the distraught homeowner telling him to “Move on, mind his own business” etc., finally threatening him saying, “I can find out where you live.” As I stood there and watched this, the demeanor and manner in which this statement was delivered, it was obviously delivered as a threat. I was told by the homeowner whose house caught fire that the next day this belligerent individual walked over to his block and told him, “You just made an enemy.” This kind of attitude raises serious concerns about the safety of our neighborhood when some are willing to ignore the existing laws and then resort to threats and intimidation when confronted with the consequences of illegal fireworks being shot off in our neighborhoods.[2]

That same Fourth of July evening as I walked throughout our neighborhood to observe the celebrations and what kind of fireworks were being shot off. I observed just a few houses away in a rental home the renters shooting off mortars and bottle rockets into the air amidst homes right across the street with shake roofs (know to be highly flammable). I was told by one fireman that bottle rockets are notorious for causing house fires as they often land on roofs still burning and ignite leaves and other debris. Mortars and bottle spent bottle rockets were clearly visible all throughout the neighborhood.

In one case I observed what appeared to be an adult and their children holding Roman Candle fireworks in their hands shooting them up into the air aiming down the street. It does not take much of an imagination to foresee the danger in such irresponsible behavior. Roman candles caused roughly 400 injuries in 2018. Just around the corner from where I observed this lives a family of five with three small children and a house with a shake roof. I dread thinking what might happen to them in terms of loss of property and potentially even life if some stray Roman candle flame should land on their roof and set their home ablaze.

As I continued to walk through the neighborhood I came across a home with a number of children shooting off bottle rockets with absolutely no adult supervision not a single adult in sight and right across the street were several homes with highly flammable shake roofs over the top of which they were shooting these flaming bottle rockets. The day after the Fourth of July I walked over and filmed the remains of the fireworks these kids and been shooting off:

The death of Roland Kennedy due to the use of Fourth of July fireworks being shot off in our closely packed neighborhoods that have many older homes with shake roofs was not unforeseeable. Over the previous years many discussion threads have arisen on Social Media site Nextdoor.com regarding the danger of the use of fireworks in our neighborhoods. I searched the Nextdoor.com going back several years and observed a pattern of communication taking place. Whenever a poster would raise a legitimate concern regarding the firing of fireworks which happens not just on the Fourth of July but frequently in association with Seahawks’ football games a predictable cast of characters would post condescending and/or ridiculing responses arguing they have every right to shoot off any kind of fireworks they like while ignoring the fact that not all fireworks were legal, often telling concerned homeowners to just drug their pets, ignore the fireworks, hose down your roof, etc.[3]

Some would even brag that they would be putting on “big” firework shows but they knew how to be safe having water and fire extinguishers on hand, always excusing their behavior blaming the anonymous “other” guy would wasn’t safe for the increasing house fires occurring on the Fourth of July. Of course, the “big” shows are getting their fireworks from the Reservation and ignoring the fact they are shooting off illegal fireworks in a manner that could easily result in the loss of property or worse, the lose of life as actually happened on the Fourth of July 2019. Some even when so far as to film the fireworks being shot off in our neighborhoods and then congratulating themselves about another great year of neighborhood firework shows:

The interesting thing about the video above is that I was able to use public King County Parcel data and geographic information systems mapping (GIS) and google maps to overlay King County Parcel Maps onto the video and identify the actual parcel data of the homeowner firing off the fireworks.

Click to enlarge image

The video was clear enough to trace the firework tracer right back to the ground and observe the homeowner get off his/her porch, walk out into the cul-de-sac and setup the next mortar and fire it off. For example, at 0:18 you can trace the location of a firework being fired from the ground up into the air-burst that follows. At 1:21 and 2:24 you are looking at the following Woodside HOA area (image right). If one observes the video carefully it is not difficult to see where fireworks are being fired from. I note that Woodside’s HOA has already banned fireworks in its neighborhoods.

If one looks carefully at the King County Parcel maps below the image of Woodside, which matches the video one can identify the exact parcel in front of which fireworks are being fired. If one combines the fact that a simple inexpensive drone can capture the digital forensics evidence good enough to watch an individual leave their front yard and setup and fire a firework and follow each shot firework’s tracer back to the location from where it was fired it becomes quickly clear that there already exists technologies that would allow law enforcement a cost-effective way to identify offenders and deal with them appropriately in real-time.

King County Parcel Map of Woodside Neighborhood

It is time those who want to see this abuse of illegal fireworks reigned in and stopped to do something about it by organizing a letter/email campaign in support of Jim McDermott’s proposed legislation to ban all fireworks in Unincorporated King County.

Dear Friend,

You are receiving this message because you have previously contacted my office regarding the dangers of fireworks.

Today at the Council, I introduced legislation that would ban the sale and discharge of consumer fireworks in unincorporated King County. The tragic death of an elderly man in White Center in house fire caused by fireworks, as well as the increasing risk of wildfire due to climate change, demonstrates the danger posed by fireworks, and the need to act.

As the proposal moves through the legislative process, I would encourage to you share your thoughts with my Council colleagues in support of the proposal. This can be done via email or in-person at a public hearing, once the ordinance is scheduled to be heard in the Council’s Local Services committee.

Please see the press release below for more details or click here.

Thank you for your support.

Joe McDermott, King County Concilmember, District 8 (Joe.McDermott at kingcounty.gov)

~ ~ ~

[1] The majority of the most dangerous fireworks are already illegal. They are purchased on the surrounding Indian Reservations by our neighbors and then brought into our neighborhood and and fired off as part of their Fourth of July celebrations. But the existing laws are difficult to enforce due to vague definitions of what is legal and illegal and inability of law enforcement to determine the difference between legal and illegal fireworks with the degree of evidence required to make the law enforceable. By banning and making ALL fireworks illegal there will no longer be an difficulty in determining who in our neighborhood is firing off illegal fireworks.

[2] I shared what I witnessed (the statement I interpreted as a threat) with two police officers that are neighbors and both characterized the statement(s) as threats and suggested a report to log the incident be made.

[3] This kind of bullying, intimidating, ridiculing, or even threatening behavior indicates a certain attitude that I observed repeatedly on the Social Media site Nextdoor.com whenever anyone would raise legitimate concerns about the danger of shooting off fireworks (legal and illegal) in our neighborhoods.

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