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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].”