ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Arizona’s largest city has gone four months without any measurable rain, and neighboring New Mexico is in the midst of four years of severe drought.
But you’ll still see and hear fireworks sparkle and pop during the days around July 4, despite the dangerously high threat of wildfires.
While some places in the West ban fireworks altogether, or greatly limit what you can light off when conditions are ripe for fire, other states are going in the opposite direction.
Arizona actually loosened its restrictions this year and is now allowing residents of the two most populated cities to set off fireworks in the days around Independence Day, and an effort by the New Mexico governor to impose tougher rules during dry times has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears in the Legislature.
Some lawmakers chalk it up to statehouse politics, while others say it’s politicians’ reluctance to impose more regulations and take away the cherished tradition of setting off fireworks, even in severe droughts.
Phil Griego, a northern New Mexico rancher and a Democratic state senator, said the pastures around his village are so dry that the grass crunches under the hooves of horses and cattle when ranchers move the animals from one field to the next.
Griego tried during this year’s legislative session to pass a measure that would have updated New Mexico’s fireworks laws to give cities and counties more authority to ban fireworks when fire danger is high. Political wrangling stalled the measure in the Democrat-controlled Senate despite bipartisan support from lawmakers, fire chiefs around the state and Republican Gov. Susan Martinez, who has been pushing since 2011 for changes to the law.
“This is critical because I don’t think this drought and this situation we’re in right now is going to pass any time soon,” Griego said. “For this year, it’s done and over, but we’ve got to start working on next year. We’ve got to have protections. Look at the fires that are taking place now with just lightning strikes.”
Arizona began allowing the sale and use of certain fireworks in 2010. This year, the state updated its laws to prohibit cities in Maricopa and Pima counties – which include Phoenix and Tucson – from banning the use of fireworks around the July 4 holiday. Previously, some cities in the area had banned fireworks, while others didn’t, resulting in much confusion.
The Phoenix Fire Department is placing trucks in strategic places around town so crews can respond to brush fires within minutes. City employees will also be monitoring popular hiking trails, looking for anyone trying to set off illegal fireworks.
“We’re trying to keep control on it,” said Glenn D’Auria, president of the Arizona Fire Marshals Association and a Tucson fire inspector. “It’s new for us. It’s not like back East where people grew up with it. It’s a new toy to play with out here.”
In Texas, legislation to give the state fire marshal the power to enforce stricter rules didn’t get far during the last session partly due to the lack of appetite among some lawmakers for imposing more regulations on small businesses.
Some places in the West do restrict fireworks heavily. In Utah, more than 50 cities and towns have imposed additional restrictions this year due to the fire danger. Some municipalities have banned all fireworks in city limits, while several have designated safe areas near fire departments or parking lots from which to light fireworks.
Utah lawmakers this year passed a measure giving counties the authority to restrict fireworks in unincorporated areas.
In California, not many cities allow for the sale and use of legal fireworks. An open burn ban began this week for millions of acres managed by California’s state forestry division. The agency said it has zero tolerance for illegal fireworks and will be patrolling over the holiday weekend given the drought emergency.
The same goes for Washington, where fireworks are banned in all of the biggest cities and in many other places. People in Seattle are prohibited from setting off fireworks within city limit on the Fourth of July or any other time.
From California and Arizona to New Mexico and Oklahoma, fire officials and elected leaders are encouraging people to attend professional fireworks shows instead of lighting fountains in their neighborhoods.
At a barren lot on the edge of Albuquerque, a team of pyro-experts with Western Enterprises Inc. was busy Wednesday dropping hundreds of shells into carefully aligned and wired launching tubes for the city’s annual fireworks show. Thousands of people were expected to attend.
Across town, Nathan Farmer was setting up dozens of boxed sets of fireworks at his roadside stand. Last summer, when the drought reached unprecedented levels in New Mexico, sales were down but he’s hopeful his sparklers and fountains sell this year.
Farmer said concerned citizens have in the past called the police on him, saying he shouldn’t be selling fireworks given the threat of wildfire.
Fireworks are like anything else in life, he said.
“If you give a person some money, a gun, a car or alcohol, it’s up to that person to be responsible with it,” he said.