Blogger's Note: Here's an article that I wrote with Sen. Sander Rue (R- District 23) about the fireworks bill we introduced in the Senate last week. A version of it appeared in the Albuquerque Journal yesterday.
Few states possess the natural beauty that we in New Mexico enjoy daily. Unfortunately, this year has reminded us that sometimes our arid landscape comes with a cost. Just ask New Mexicans in the communities of Silver City, Ruidoso, Raton, Hondo, Cloudcroft, and other areas around the state devastated by this year’s wildfires.
And who could forget our neighbors in Los Alamos who weathered the largest wildfire in the state’s history when the Las Conchas Fire engulfed an acre of land per second at times and 2,575 firefighters struggled to contain a blaze that would go on to burn 156,590 acres. In fact, since January, wildfires throughout the state have claimed over one million New Mexico acres, costing the state over $22 million.
As the Fourth of July holiday neared, panicked New Mexicans grew increasingly frustrated over the governor and local government’s lack of authority to ban the sale and use of fireworks in areas threatened by the fires, even in the face of ongoing containment efforts. While New Mexicans knew that fireworks had not been the source of the fires, they remembered the Albuquerque bosque fire of 2002, which was caused by fireworks, and recognized the danger of adding human causes to the mix.
Frustration on the local levels was expressed by Taos Mayor Darren Cordova and Albuquerque Mayor R.J. Berry, who learned that although current law allows cities and counties to place certain restrictions on fireworks, they do not have the flexibility to address this activity in a situation that requires immediate action. Instead, the governing bodies would have to vote and issue a proclamation 20 days in advance of any restriction.
This lack of a mechanism by which the state can quickly intervene in rare and necessary instances is why we support the governor’s efforts to address firework activity during a state of emergency. We also support expanding the counties’ and municipalities’ ability to respond when circumstances warrant. As the Ruidoso News noted, state law doesn’t allow for an outright ban, “even in times when common sense dictates it is the prudent thing to do.”
We respect the men and women who work in the fireworks industry. We also acknowledge that New Mexico is, by design, a dry state prone to drought. That is why we support using the National Fire Danger Rating System, rather than measuring fire hazard strictly by drought conditions, which occur more frequently. The National Fire Danger Rating System is based on sound, scientific data and used by the state forestry division to accurately assess fire danger after taking into consideration an area’s fuel moisture content, weather, and a number of other factors.
Make no mistake; this legislation does not trigger an automatic ban on fireworks every time the rating system reaches a certain level. Instead, it allows for a temporary ban only in situations when the governor has already declared a state of emergency and high fire danger conditions exist. When the state of emergency passes; the ban is lifted.
Neither does this bill take an all-or-nothing approach. Any ban imposed would be targeted to the specific area suffering from fire susceptibility. It would not blanket the state as a knee-jerk reaction to an isolated incident. If Los Alamos is threatened, a ban would not extend to Farmington. This is an important distinction and one that we feel strikes the responsible balance between giving our State the ability it needs to protect our citizens and respecting those who earn their paychecks from the fireworks industry.
It is unfortunate that previous attempts to enact similar, common-sense legislation have met resistance. This time around, we hope that public support will motivate lawmakers to act. As Taos volunteer fire chief, Jim Fambro noted: “It’s not going to be easy. We are fighting some big bucks and often in Santa Fe, money talks.” In light of how much devastation New Mexicans have suffered as a result of wildfires, we hope this isn’t the case. Call you legislator at 1-505-986-4300 to weigh in on this important matter.