Fire crews kept busy during Independence Day week

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Fireworks gutted a house along Yakima Avenue this year, displacing two families who lived there and prompting a community effort to raise money for one of the residents, Edward Loftin, to buy tools so he could go back to work as a maintenance man and landscaper. Photo Steve Dunkelberger

Tacoma Fire Department crews responded to 30 fireworks-related fires during the week that was anchored by the July 4 Independence Day celebration.

Those fires included three blazes in trash bins, 23 brush fires, two house fires and two other fires that totaled $119,660 in damages, according to the Tacoma Fire Department’s after-action report to the City Council. Most of that fire damage, at an estimated loss of $97,550, occurred at a house on Yakima Avenue that displaced two families on July 2, including Edward Loftin and his son that prompted a community fundraising effort to buy tools so Loftin could return to work as a landscaper and general handyman.

Everyone inside the two-floor house along the 1900 block of South Yakima Avenue escaped the fire without injury. The house and the Loftins’ belongings were destroyed as well. Renter’s insurance, thankfully, will cover some of costs of the personal belongings lost in the blaze. The insurance policy also doesn’t cover the replacement of yard tools Edward Loftin needs to trim branches, cut grass and clear bush so he can earn the money he needs to rebuild his life. Donations from around the community are helping fill that gap. The GoFundMe page is about halfway to its $20,000 goal. Donations are still being accepted at Gofundme.com/Ed-and-Nicky.

The final tally of damage linked to fireworks in the city between June 26 and July 6 is well below the cost of firework fires last year. But that was an unusual year. Damaged caused by fireworks during Independence Day celebrations in 2017 hit a five-year peak with an estimated $650,000 in fire damages, largely from a fire at the West Ridge apartment complex. This year, however, was almost three times the “usual” level of fireworks activity, which averages about $50,000 in firework-related damage between the few days before and the few days after July 4. Two people were treated by fire crews before being transported to area hospitals for burns and injuries tied to fireworks, despite Tacoma having a ban on all fireworks for decades.

“It doesn’t seem to be a lack of knowledge,” Fire Department spokesman Joe Meinecke said. “People are just disregarding it.”

The department had already spent much of spring and early summer distributing fliers to public school students, community meetings and festivals about the ban on fireworks as well as handing out fireworks “safety awareness” letters for people to share in neighborhoods where fireworks violations occurred. Reader boards and social media posts also reminded Tacomans that the possession and discharge of fireworks are illegal in the city. Despite those efforts, the number of fireworks incidents has increased during the last three years.

“We are kind of staircasing up if you will,” Meinecke said.

The department recorded 17 fireworks incidents in 2016, 22 reports last year and 30 incidents this year. More people are setting off fireworks, and those fireworks are starting more fires because the weather has been getting warmer and drier during the peak fireworks season in early July.

“This is the new normal,” Meinecke said.

Alongside the fires caused by fireworks, Tacoma Police patrols responded to 575 calls for service into the dispatch center, down from 635 last year, according to the department’s after-action summary. Those responses led to the confiscation of 85 pounds of explosives and 12 citations for the possession of fireworks. The civil infraction for fireworks is $257. 

Standout firework incidences, other than the fires, included a mortar firework breaking through a window and a “sparkler bomb” that was recovered by the police department’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Response team.

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