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Fireworks laws ‘common sense’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The spring winds are blowing, the ground underfoot is crunching, a dangerous fire season is looming, and once again some local officials are fretting because they can’t ban all fireworks.

A proposal to expand the authority of the state, cities and counties to do that landed like a dud during this year’s legislative session.

That’s nothing new; mayors and others — even governors — have tried for at least a decade to get lawmakers to give them more control over the sale and use of fireworks.

But effective footwork by veteran Capitol lobbyists and pleas from mom-and-pop fireworks vendors have managed to keep intact a law that limits what local governments can do.

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The Legislature “is sympathetic to small-business owners — especially when fireworks aren’t the problem,” said Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, who was instrumental in derailing a fireworks bill that had the backing of cities, counties and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Rep. Emily Kane, a Democratic newcomer to the Legislature and a captain in the Albuquerque Fire Department, sponsored the bill to loosen the reins on local governments, saying they should be able “to control what happens on their land.”

Kane, who has already been out to a couple of wildfires this season, said it’s irksome to be able to control other possible ignition sources — barbecue grills, outside smoking — when it’s dangerously dry, but not fireworks.

A law enacted in 1999 shifted authority over fireworks restrictions from the state level to cities and counties, but it limited what they can do. While they can prohibit the sale and use of certain types of fireworks — aerial devices such as rockets and Roman candles, for example, and “ground audible” devices such as firecrackers — they cannot outright ban a group of commonly used sparkling devices that includes fountains, sparklers and spinners.

In “extreme or severe drought,” cities and counties can restrict the use of fireworks in that group — to areas that are paved or barren or have water nearby — but they have to issue a proclamation with the restrictions at least 20 days before the Fourth of July.

Local officials want more flexibility.

“The town needs to be able to say, ‘OK, we’re banning all fireworks’ when we’re in a situation like this. … I think it’s good common sense,” said Ray Alborn, the mayor of Ruidoso, where last year a lightning-caused fire destroyed more than 250 structures and burned 44,000 acres in and around the Lincoln National Forest.

Fireworks vendor Jim Burnham of Farmington says fireworks cause only a tiny fraction of reported fires, and the current system is working.

“I don’t see why there’s such a push to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Burnham, who estimates that fireworks sales in New Mexico total more than $12 million annually.

He especially objected to a requirement in Kane’s bill to use a specific fire danger rating system, rather than the currently used drought index, as the premise for decisions. Had that been in place, most of New Mexico would have been subject to restrictions 10 of the past 13 years, he contended.

Opponents also argue that local governments’ restrictions on sales would be undercut by sales on Indian lands.

Kane’s bill would have broadened the state’s authority over fireworks, something the governor has asked lawmakers for repeatedly.

“The need to allow the state and local governments to act in the best interest of public safety and reduce the threat of wildfire by banning the sale and use of fireworks remains painfully clear,” spokesman Greg Blair said.
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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