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Balloon Fiesta ready for liftoff

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A quick look around Balloon Fiesta Park and it’s obvious: The grassy open field is turning into a full-service little town.

Spectators will find enough creature comforts at the 2013 Balloon Fiesta, which starts Saturday and this year is titled “Enchanted Sunrise,” that they will be able to stay at the event all day.

And those who plan to enmesh themselves around the clock – the balloonmeister from North Carolina and tourists who’ve reserved spots for high-end RVs, for example – will not have to leave the site at all. They can literally live there until the fiesta ends Oct. 13.

The impromptu streets of the 42nd annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta are lined with nearly 40 mini-versions of local restaurants and dozens of other types of concession stands.

Around the park, dozens of porta-potties, a handful of ATM machines and plenty of garbage cans and sinks are in place. There’s even a high-end hangout center with drinks and catered food.

And volunteers are putting the finishing touches on their booths: home base to hundreds of volunteers who will be covering duties ranging from registering pilots to welcoming dignitaries to feeding and keeping warm the 700 journalists expected to cover the event.

Balloon pilots are arriving from 18 countries, including Trim, Ireland, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Annonay, France, and Czyze, Poland.

And the best news is that so far, good weather is forecast for the opening weekend, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Luckett.

The early morning temps will be chilly – in the 30s and 40s – but afternoons will warm up.

On Saturday afternoon, the temperature is expected to reach 63 degrees under sunny skies. Breezes are expected to be from the north, between 10 and 15 mph. Sunday will be even warmer, with the mercury expected to reach 76 degrees with clear skies and sunshine, he said.

The evenings, which will feature balloon glows, fireworks and chain-saw carving events, will get cooler, so layering is recommended.

“Both days look pretty good,” Luckett said.

Opening weekend events include the dawn patrol show, a morning glow and a mass ascension on both Saturday and Sunday morning. Traffic is always a challenge, and a park-and-ride service is available from various parts of the city.

But Baloon Fiesta organizers warn visitors to leave home early – so they can park by 5:30 a.m. – and be patient.

As tents were being erected and restaurant stalls secured in place this week, many behind-the-scenes activities were abuzz, as volunteers made sure pilots’ flight plans are reviewed and that they have maps and parking passes.

At the media tent, a lamp was being attached to a watch tower so photojournalists can climb up 20 feet to take pictures of the 550 expected hot-air balloons.

Volunteer Dan Rose, retired Kirtland energy engineer, will serve as chief safety official, ensuring that pilots adhere to safety rules. He has volunteered in various capacities since 1978, and will live on sight in an RV, with his wife and children joining him when they can.

He likens what he does to a police officer handing out a ticket.

When asked what keeps drawing him back, he said, “The people, the wonder, the beauty of it all, the camaraderie.”

Balloonmeister Sam Parks, who has also volunteered his time in recent fiestas in other capacities, will be at his command post every day by 5 a.m. and will hold a pilot briefing at 6:15 each morning.

Those who find merely watching insufficient, Rainbow Ryders, a local commercial balloon flight company, will be offering flights at $395 a person from the field. At the company’s office not far from the park, a staffer was handling constantly ringing phones. Already, many of the slots have been booked.

On the ground, fiesta-goers will have a lot to do when not tilting their heads upward: country artist Darius Rucker will headline the event’s Music Fiesta on Oct. 12; fireworks, presented by the Albuquerque Journal , will light up the sky on five nights; local artisans will show off their wares at a special arts and crafts tent; dozens of stands will sell everything from pins to T-shirts; and of course, there are the food booths, selling every type of breakfast burrito imaginable as well as funnel cake, huevos rancheros, vegetarian fare and more.

As balloonmeister Parks said: “This is like the World Series of ballooning.”

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