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Even as fires rage, fireworks ban a tough nut to crack

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Even as fires rage, fireworks ban a tough nut to crack

Apr 28, 2022 | 8:56 am ET
By Dede Feldman
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Even as fires rage, fireworks ban a tough nut to crack
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New Mexico law, written with the support of the small-but-powerful fireworks industry, ties the hands of cities and renders immediate response to local fires impossible, writes former Sen. Dede Feldman. (Photo by Ralph Orlowski / Getty Images)

It seems like common sense. With wildfires eating up over 160,000 acres in Northern New Mexico and costing tens of millions of dollars for fire suppression, why not ban the sale of fireworks during the peak fire season of the year — Fourth of July? 

It’s a question that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tried to grapple with a few days ago during a news conference on the state’s emergency response to the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak, Cooks Peak, Cerro Pelado and other fires. The governor would like to ban fireworks in a time of extreme drought and danger, but she cannot according to a 1996 state law that vests that power in municipalities alone. 

And even that law, written with the support of the small-but-powerful fireworks industry, ties the hands of cities by requiring hearings 20 days in advance of any declaration, which renders immediate response to local fires impossible. Moreover, cities can only ban the sale or use of some fireworks (missile and stick-type rockets, helicopters, aerial spinners and ground-audible devices) and can only restrict the use of everything else that sets off showers of sparks to areas that are paved, barren or have an accessible source of water. For firefighters, who have been arguing for years for an outright state ban, that makes enforcement almost impossible.

In the absence of the power to issue a statewide ban, the governor issued an executive order declaring that severe drought and fire conditions exist and urging the municipalities to voluntarily ban fireworks, as have federal agencies and state forests. Faced with the same problem in 2011, Gov. Susana Martinez begged private businesses to take fireworks off the shelves — and some, including Walmart, did. 

That year — 2011 — was the year of the huge Las Conchas fire in the Jemez, and the next year I teamed up with the Republican governor to get the Legislature to give her power to issue a temporary fireworks ban during extreme drought. Every fire department in the state wanted to testify in favor of Senate Bill 5. The Municipal League and the Association of Counties were on board. The state forester was there. Petitions with 7,000 signatures from all over the state poured in, and the mayors of small towns feverishly lobbied their legislators.

In spite of the popular support — and some compromises made along the way — the bill went down in flames, tabled in the Senate Corporations Committee, chaired by Sen. Phil Griego. Lobbyists from the fireworks industry, who portrayed their clients as mom-and-pop enterprises defending mom and apple pie, were successful in holding off what I considered a clear public health and safety issue. 

“We’re talking about a free country and independence,” Eddie Arnet from Amy’s Fireworks in Las Cruces told the committee. “These fireworks are used for the Fourth of July. We’re talking about sparklers in grandmother’s birthday cake.” 

The fireworks industry was composed of three companies, located in Roswell, Las Cruces and Farmington, along with seasonal retail outlets that sell fireworks along the roadside in the weeks before the Fourth of July. In 2012, lobbyists for the three companies were some of the most well-known, powerful and generous at the Roundhouse. And when it came to legislators, their largess was targeted to the Corporations Committee, which they often supplied with dinners shipped in from the fancy Restaurant Martín (complete with white linen napkins and the good china).  

In the years since, there have been several attempts to give cities more leeway on which fireworks they can ban, although the 20-day advance notice has always been maintained. In 2013, Rep. Emily Kane, a firefighter herself, introduced a bill. Sen. Griego tried in 2015, and Rep. Matthew McQueen tried in 2017. All the bills failed.

Opponents said that fireworks don’t usually cause fires, and that even if they were banned, they could be bought on Native American reservations or nearby states. 

Yet, while the causes of major forest fires only occasionally include fireworks, even one fire sparked in such a way can have a major impact. In 2003, a major Bosque fire caused by teenagers playing with fireworks near Old Town torched 300 prime acres of the Bosque running through my Senate district. It cost $1.7 million for fire suppression, nearly burnt down the Bosque School and scarred the suddenly evacuated residents of Thomas Village and Dietz Farms. It spurred me to introduce my first fireworks bill in 2004, which also went down to defeat.  

There are some causes of wildfires, like lightening or wind, that cannot be controlled.  But, according to natural resources professionals, nearly 85% of wildfires are caused by humans who leave campfires unattended, throw out cigarette butts, and yes, use fireworks negligently. Controlling fireworks is one of the few tools available — and yet it is a tough nut to crack in the Legislature.

Legislators have been unwilling to give the governor more power in an emergency, and they are unwilling to strengthen the hand of local government as well.

In a time of continued drought, brought on by climate change, it’s time for the Legislature to step up and become a part of the solution, rather than perpetuating the problem — an outdated law that prevents the governor from banning fireworks statewide in longer and longer fire seasons.

What will that take? Confronting a special interest with deep connections to legislators, to start — something the Legislature has been unwilling to do. But why not try a carrot, rather than a stick? Gov. Lujan-Grisham suggested “making them whole” for not selling their deadly, delightful product. It’s a nice way of saying: pay them off. It’s been done before, with other powerful interests that lawmakers are afraid to confront. A sad commentary on legislative courage, perhaps, but a practical way to save lives, expense, rural livelihoods and homes.