Rockets’ Red Glare
In the glow of wildfires, officials stare down the Fourth of July
Under state law, no one can ban fireworks completely. Not a city council or county commission, not a mayor or the governor. Not after the largest blaze in New Mexico history or the Bosque’s been charred.
Gov. Susana Martinez says that’s a dangerous policy. “I don’t want to have a 300-acre fire and lives lost because we want to have a stand somewhere on a corner of a street selling fireworks.”
During last year’s fire season, thousands of New Mexicans called for boycotts and signed online petitions. Stores such as Smith’s and Walmart removed fireworks from their shelves. Around the state, mayors and fire chiefs called on the Legislature to allow municipalities to temporarily ban fireworks during times of extreme fire danger.
That legislation never passed despite broad bipartisan support. The fireworks industry stopped Sen. Dede Feldman's bill in February before it made it out of the Corporations and Transportation Committee. It was tabled with a 6-4 vote even after Feldman (D-Albuquerque) made compromises. “This episode was an example of the fireworks industry putting themselves ahead of public safety," Feldman says.
“Any source of ignition that I can eliminate is going to make it safer for my citizens, and I’m going to advocate for that.”
Albuquerque Fire Chief James Breen
Albuquerque Fire Chief James Breen was among the many fire department bosses from around the state who testified in support of Feldman’s bill. “It was a good piece of legislation,” Breen says. “A municipality or county should have the legislative ability to provide for the safety of its citizens.”
He characterizes fireworks as a significant and preventable hazard. Melissa Romero, spokesperson for the Albuquerque Fire Department, says fireworks were responsible for seven fires in Albuquerque last year. Fireworks also caused a major 2003 Bosque fire.
In 2011, the governor begged New Mexicans to attend large public displays or find alternative means of celebration. AFD received 945 calls over the July Fourth holiday, says Breen, and any one of those cases could have turned into a dangerous blaze.
With 54 patrolling officers, AFD was not able to respond to all of the calls. Breen estimates that only about 20 or 25 out of nearly 1,000 calls resulted in citations.
The most officials can do is regulate fireworks that fly or are louder than a pistol cap. Sen. Bill Sharer (R-Farmington), who voted to kill Feldman’s bill, says that's plenty. “In extreme drought areas, fireworks menus were limited to safe and sane items," he says. "None of the major fires that burned in New Mexico were caused by fireworks.”
"None of the major fires that burned in New Mexico were caused by fireworks.”
Sen. Bill Sharer (R-Farmington)
Breen says the law does not go far enough. “Any source of ignition that I can eliminate is going to make it safer for my citizens,” he says, “and I’m going to advocate for that.”
Mayor Richard Berry agrees. In a letter sent to legislators a year ago, he urged them to “change New Mexico law to allow municipalities to further restrict or prohibit the sale or use of fireworks on a case-by-case basis when necessary.”
Sen. Tim Keller (D-Albuquerque) sits on the Corporations and Transportation Committee and supported Feldman's measure. He says it failed because “hundreds of rural small fireworks vendors came to the Capitol and testified that the bill would hurt their family business.”
Colin MacCosbe, a fireworks vendor from Albuquerque, grew up fascinated with pyrotechnics. In high school, he spent his money at the white tents that pop up around the state. Each Fourth of July, he drove out to Moriarty to put on a display for friends and family. He says because he has always used common sense, lit only what was legal and braced anything that flew, he “never had a problem or caused a fire.”
“If we ban fireworks, the Navajo Nation will say, Come on over.”
George Muñoz (D-Gallup)
For the last two July Fourth seasons, MacCosbe has sold fireworks near Farmington. He says his stand is typical of the many that help micro-economies around the state. If a ban went into effect even temporarily, he says, “a lot of fireworks businesses in New Mexico would be destroyed.”
He says the industry has become a scapegoat in the media. “Every day there is a new headline about fireworks in New Mexico. They think a fireworks ban is the solution to the wildfires."
Not all opposition to Feldman's legislation was the work of small-time distributors. She expresses frustration with fireworks lobbyists, who are “well-known and respected” in Santa Fe. She says they “hand out shopping bags full of fireworks” to curry favor with lawmakers.
The month before they considered the bill, four senators on the Corporations and Transportation Committee received $500 campaign contributions from American Promotional Events, the parent company of TNT Fireworks. Those senators were Sharer, George Muñoz (D-Gallup), David Ulibarri (D-Grants) and committee chairman Phil Griego (D-San Jose).
“If you could see what I have seen, you would want to limit any and all human-caused fires and the risks of those fires.”
Gov. Susana Martinez
On top of the cash, TNT lobbyists Luke Otero and Anthony “T.J.” Trujillo treated the senators to free meals at upscale Santa Fe restaurants. (Otero and Trujillo also represent other clients such as Chevron, the RAI tobacco company, BP America and New Mexico Dairy Producers.)
Sharer, Muñoz and Griego gave the bill a thumbs-down. Ulibarri came out in favor of it—but only after skipping his vote during the first round and waiting until votes were already 6-3 against it.
Campaign contributions didn't influence Muñoz’ opinion, he says. “There are always a lot of corporate interests in Santa Fe. I don’t really care. You can take the money. Most of my money just goes to my district.”
Griego did not respond to requests for an interview. He’s facing ethics charges alleging he used campaign funds inappropriately.
Feldman announced her retirement from the Senate at the end of the 2012 session, so she will not be around to continue this fight. Nevertheless, Gov. Martinez, Mayor Berry and Chief Breen have all vowed to keep pushing for reform.
“The city of Albuquerque has been in conversation with a number of fireworks vendors to find some common ground so we can get some legislation passed that better provides for public safety," Breen says.
Muñoz says he might change his position, but only if other issues are properly addressed. It’s important for the state to reach an agreement with tribal nations to restrict their illegal fireworks sales, he says. “If we ban fireworks, the Navajo Nation will say, Come on over.”
Gov. Martinez says the state has been engaging tribes in talks about restrictions. After last year’s Las Conchas fire, Santa Clara Pueblo banned the sale and use of fireworks on its land. That ban is in effect this year, too. The fire destroyed 80 percent of the pueblo’s forest, damaged pilgrimage routes to sacred sites and decimated critical wildlife populations.
There must be better deterrents, Muñoz says. Even Breen admits most people using illegal fireworks in Albuquerque are not often caught and punished. For a measure to be effective, Muñoz says, “there have to be penalties in the law that are actually enforced.”
Keller will continue to support these measures, he says, but he predicts similar results in future sessions because politicians will not want to vote against small businesses from their districts. “I think the state would be better served to expand the fireworks debate to include more impact strategies to proactively manage forests,” he says.
Controlled burns and clearing out flammable material from open spaces might be more productive than eliminating fireworks from cities, he argues. “I think we need to be realistic about fires."
The governor says those larger issues will be addressed. But she says the Legislature better show the courage to stand up to the fireworks lobby and pass the legislation New Mexicans want.
“You should see what I see from the sky when I fly over the burnt areas,” Martinez says. “You should see the fear in the eyes of the families who now have to worry about the floods. If you could see what I have seen, you would want to limit any and all human-caused fires and the risks of those fires.”