Private fireworks proliferate in absence of official July 4th displays; code enforcement lax

by Kathleen Sloan | July 8, 2021
5 min read
This is a screenshot from a video posted on Sierra County NM Square on July 5, with the comment: "Like to thank our neighborhood for all the fireworks . . . best 2 hours show. Elephant butte we all did good."

Editor’s Note: To view the video from which the above image is taken, click here. The action begins 25 seconds in.

Facebook pages throughout Sierra County lit up with chatter and pictures of private fireworks displays over the 4th of July weekend. Some social media users cheered the bangs, whistles and showers of sparks, while others expressed outrage at the blatant violation of municipal fireworks codes, freaking out of pets and heightened fire risk.

The city codes of Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte forbid the sale and use of “ground audible” and “aerial” fireworks within their jurisdictions.

Ground audible devices include what are commonly called chasers (bottle rockets) and firecrackers, while aerial devices take in “stick-type rockets, shells, roman candles and missile-type rockets,” according to the Albuquerque city code.

Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton, in an interview with the Sun on July 7, said all New Mexico municipalities have passed similar fireworks codes that prohibit these devices. Yet, when Hamilton drove through T or C and Elephant Butte on the 4th, both cities “looked like a battle zone.”

“It would be different if people were going to their neighbor and saying: ‘I’m going to be setting off some fireworks, and I’ve got a fire extinguisher, and I’ve wet the ground, and it will be such and such a distance from buildings.’ But that is not what is happening. When I think of the shower of red and green phosphorous falling over roofs, the fire hazards, the number of children injured. . . .” Hamilton said, his voice trailing off.

Not only are there prohibitions on the type of fireworks allowed, there are also prohibitions on who may sell them. Elephant Butte’s code requires vendors to have state licensing from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which in turn requires the approval of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Once a state license is secured, vendors must show it to the Elephant Butte clerk-treasurer in order to be issued the required city license to sell fireworks. There were no licensed fireworks vendors this year in Elephant Butte, according to Hamilton.

In T or C, a vendor must apply to the city clerk, who gains approval from Fire Chief Paul Tooley. Tooley told the Sun that this year he approved only Walmart’s application to sell fireworks in the city and that the devices sold by the local store did not include the impermissible ground audible and aerial fireworks.

In both cities, fireworks may only be sold from June 30 to July 4 and the three days before and the day of New Year’s Day, Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year. State law allows for an exception to be made to these time restraints for a state-licensed retailer, which may sell fireworks year-round if its primary business is tourism. 

Hamilton said Sierra County has “no prohibitions” on fireworks, including what devices may be sold or set off. He reported that there were vendors in “two tents off of Highway 181” who were purveying all kinds of fireworks, “and I heard they were completely sold out.”

Because of the lack of public firework displays, Hamilton believes that “many people took it upon themselves to buy fireworks, cleaning out the inventory sold in the county.”

To cite the most prominent example, Elephant Butte Lake State Park cancelled its highly anticipated 4th of July fireworks display that typically attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park. Fired from Rattlesnake Island, the display is enhanced by its setting over the water, which also ensures fire safety. Any city or organization wishing to mount a fireworks display would have had to apply for state approval by May 1—when it was still difficult to predict what pandemic restrictions might be in place as of the 4th.

T or C Fire Chief Paul Tooley, in a separate interview, said he could hear and see audible ground and aerial fireworks going off around his home in T or C. Noting the lack of code enforcement, Tooley said: “I don’t know how busy [the T or C police] were. I imagine they were very busy on the 4th of July.”

Also a T or C resident, Hamilton said he “heard no response to calls.”

The Sierra County Sheriff’s Department is contracted to provide law enforcement to the City of Elephant Butte. Hamilton said he met with Elephant Butte Fire Chief Toby Boone and City Manager Vicki Ballinger the week before the 4th to discuss how they wanted fireworks enforcement handled. “The city fire chief also has authority to issue fireworks violations citations,” Hamilton said. “Fire Chief Boone said he wanted no enforcement [of the fireworks code] whatsoever.”

The Sun asked Boone and Ballinger to respond to Hamilton’s claim.  

Boone, in a July 8 email, stated: “Good Morning, the conversation was about enforcing citations on negligence and endangerment while using fireworks. Otherwise anyone who is safely firing off fireworks would not be cited.  It is about the Independence of our Nation. 245 years of it! God Bless America.” 

Ballinger, in a July 7 email, stated: “That information is not correct. The actual take away from that conversation was citations would be issued for negligence or endangerment. Otherwise, anyone safely using fireworks would not be cited.” 

After the 4th, Hamilton met with Sierra County Regional Dispatch Authority Director Michelle Atwell. “She said they were inundated with calls [complaints about fireworks],” Hamilton said. “Officers were dispatched and used their discretion [in determining if and how they responded to the calls].”

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

2 thoughts on “Private fireworks proliferate in absence of official July 4th displays; code enforcement lax”

  1. My experience began about a week before the 4th. A neighbor across the river from me started setting off loud explosions/bangs and aerial bombs starting about 9 p.m. going to about 10:00. After a couple of nights of the animals freaking out, I called central dispatch and reported it. A couple nights later I called again and a couple nights after that I called again . . . each time I was told that they would send an officer out. These were major fireworks! On the 3rd of July, it got very intense, and my call to central dispatch was met with a very busy operator who described how her switchboard was ringing off the hook and that all officers were on calls and she would “try” to get someone over there, when she could.

    The next day I drove to where these fireworks were being set off, talked to one disturbed neighbor, who pointed me to the violators property. I got their name and address and turned them into central dispatch . . . not a great deal of investigation required. Nothing, to my knowledge, was done by the police or codes.

    Every year we go through this. If folks could limit their celebration to the evening of the 4th, we could deal with the effects on the animals and sleep patterns. What I experienced was a total disrespect fro the entire neighborhood, night after nigh, and I was a couple blocks away. My big question is why why we have such a totally ineffective T or C police force? If they are overwhelmed by fireworks, who will we count on when we are met with much more life-threatening situations?

    I feel it is time to disband the T or C police force, saving $2 million-plus, and turn it over to the sheriff’s department, who operate under the will of the people (votes) and not the city commission . . . isn’t that what the 4th of July is all about: “of the people, for the people and by the people?”

  2. Granted, we had rain to at least stop some fires, but . . . when things are against the law, they are prohibited. Here in Hillsboro I have a neighbor just 1/10th of a mile from me or less and he/they were setting off bangs that sounded like they were in my front yard. Went on for over an hour along with some whistling and bigger fireworks to light up the sky and scare the newborn goats and ewes right across the road from the fireworks person. A number of years ago, my neighbors were off their feed for thre days due to loud 4th of July booms. If violators would consider the wild animals and vets and others with PTSD and domestic animals, I would hope they would STOP this idiotic and inconsiderate practice. I love fireworks as much as the next person, but let the CITY do it at appropriate places (Elephant Butte Lake) and not in our neighborhoods. Please consider what the loud noises do to others.

    Editor’s Note: To reiterate Kathleen Sloan’s findings, Sierra County has no fireworks code that would apply to rural areas and communities such as Hillsboro.

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