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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire(works)

Albuquerque police and fire officials look at fireworks their units confiscated during their Fourth of July shift. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Fourth of July is the busiest day of the year for Albuquerque Fire Rescue. Across the city, shimmering trails of gold, blue and green rise against the night sky. It’s these “illegal” jewels the fire department is after.

In a conference room at Fire Station One in Downtown, Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Gene Gallegos oversees Lieutenant Antonio Chinchilla and Captain Michael Martinez as they track the flood of reports of illegal fireworks from across the city of Albuquerque.

“This is a lot busier than last year,” Gallegos said. “Because of the (quarantine) and because we’ve been pushing the 311 app.”

By 10:17 p.m. almost 1,700 reports of illegal fireworks were recorded over the phone or through the city’s 311 app.

Enforcing the city’s fireworks ordinance are 24 men and women split into 12 crews, which consist of one Albuquerque police officer and one firefighter each.

This system helps free up resources so that more than 50 AFR vehicles can respond to emergency calls such as car accidents.

Smoke bombs burn as Albuquerque fire and police officials issue a cease-and-desist order to a household that was reported lighting illegal fireworks. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

In addition to the fireworks enforcement unit, 24 firefighters were patrolling the bosque, looking for fires. In 2019, the AFR responded to more than 50 outside fires on the Fourth of July.

“That’s a ton of calls. Each one takes probably half an hour to an hour,” Gallegos said.

Fireworks that go higher than 20 feet and have a width larger than six-feet are illegal in Albuquerque. AFR can issue a fine up to $500 and 90 days in jail to those caught with illegal fireworks, but first responders are issuing cease-and-desist orders and confiscating illegal fireworks first, before issuing a fine.

“If you have kids, go buy the legal ones you can light off on the street; have a blast; have a beer,” Gallegos said.”But stay away from the illegal ones that are putting our city at risk – our families at risk.”

In neighborhoods on the west edge of town, almost every family was lighting fireworks in the street. Children on the sidewalk watched a sparkling gold fountain splash onto the pavement as a series of fireworks launch toward the sky and light up the neighborhood.

“We’re in hot pursuit,” Gallegos joked, following two fireworks enforcement crews.

As officers confiscate the fireworks, firefighters issue a cease-and-desist to a family of six.

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Confiscated fireworks are placed in the back of an Albuquerque Police Department vehicle, Saturday night. Officers estimate about $1,000 of fireworks were put in their car. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

The back of an APD squad car is almost full to the brim with cases of illegal fireworks, estimated to be worth at least $1,000. All the while, illegal fireworks are being shot around them from the brush-filled West Side desert to the center of the city.

Gallegos hopes that their presence keeps illegal fireworks unlit.

“Word-of-mouth really helps out … hopefully that helps out a little bit. Not always,” Gallegos said.

When the first responders arrive in APD cars, residents try to quickly pack up and retreat to their homes. Some make it, while others are caught with the smoking crates of illegal fireworks.

After midnight, Gallegos compared the fireworks enforcement team’s efforts to “chasing ghosts.”

By then, the city recorded 2,267 total complaints of illegal fireworks. Gallegos estimated that the fireworks enforcement team addressed at least 2% of them.

“Calls will probably continue to come in until two o’clock in the morning,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos and his team will be chasing the same ghosts for the rest of the week, well after the Fourth of July.

“It’s not going to be as bad, but it’s going to be bad,” Gallegos said.

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