Fireworks and festivities of Fourth of July are around the corner, but dry and hot conditions make the El Paso area a potential tinderbox.
Personal fireworks are banned within El Paso city limits, but are also facing restrictions in the unincorporated portions because of the fire danger threat.
El Paso County Commissioners Court in May banned certain aerial fireworks, including rockets with fins and fireworks on sticks. Commissioners also set out an open burn ban, citing the severe drought. The types of banned fireworks, known as “fins and sticks” include bottle rockets, missiles and other firecrackers, and have parts that can fall off and cause fires when they land.
Chief Kris Menendez, who leads El Paso Emergency Services District 1 for the Horizon City area, said he’s concerned about the upcoming holiday.
“The fire dangers are extremely high, a lot, a lot of dry vegetation out there,” he said.
He said fire departments take extra precautions, and ask for additional staff to man trucks to respond to brush fires or possible house fires.
“We see anywhere from as low as 18 calls to as high as up to 43 calls in the eight-hour period,” said Menedez, who’s been with the department for three decades.
It’s unclear if County Judge Ricardo Samaniego will take additional action to limit all personal fireworks outside city limits — authority that’s solely vested in his office, after he took no action on the issue during a meeting June 14.
Lt. Rafael Gallardo, a special operations leader for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, said the department is currently planning as if the county will not issue a fireworks ban.
“As of now we don’t really know,” he said. “We’re still planning on our end as if we are going to have a full Fourth of July.”
Gallardo said the department’s goal is to get “voluntary compliance” with fireworks restrictions without issuing citations. He said if there are repeated reports, or a deputy has to respond multiple times, then citations, which can go as high as $2,000, will be issued.
He said the department still has to direct traffic, escort medical calls, and cordon off areas if fire departments need to respond to fires.
He asked people to be considerate by bringing a bucket of water, picking up their leftovers, and using only legal, ground fireworks.
“It’s very dry,” he said. “Just a small gust of wind can take a burning piece and cause a major problem.”
El Paso County is the driest county in Texas, according to the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, which is used by U.S. Forest Service officials to measure moisture and temperatures to determine forest fire potential.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged counties to ban selling personal fireworks this July 4 due to the drought. (State statute doesn’t grant the governor the authority to issue a statewide ban.)
Last week, Doña Ana County Commissioners enacted a partial ban on “fins and sticks” fireworks and “ground audible devices,” including chasers and firecrackers.
County commissioners courts in Texas can restrict firework sales if they reach certain levels on the KDBI, and El Paso is well above the threshold. The KBDI scale ranges from 0 to 800, with 800 being “absolutely dry conditions,” and El Paso is measured at 733. The threshold to consider limiting fireworks is currently 575. El Paso has remained above 600 on the KDBI since last summer.
Assistant El Paso County Attorney Christina Sanchez told Commissioners Court that a total ban on fireworks coming out of a Local Declaration of Disaster would last fewer than three days. She said that determination lay with Samaniego alone.
“The county judge can issue his own order, which would do a total ban, if you will, or some other modification of any other type of ban,” she said. “However, that only extends for a 60-hour period.”
After the 60-hour period, state statute says the governor would have to give permission to extend the ban. Fireworks were banned before Fourth of July celebrations from 2011-2015 and again in 2019 and 2020.
County Chief Administrator Betsy Keller said that that county met with vendors earlier in the year to negotiate a deal.
“We hope that the court would support not to ban all fireworks, but to ban sticks and fins for safety and obviously to help with (control) fire danger,” Keller said.
Samaniego said he has to balance safety and economics .
“(Sellers) put a lot of money into it. And then we wanted somehow, some way to see if there was a balance between that,” he said.
Roger Esparza, the fire chief for the El Paso Emergency Services District 2, which includes small towns and unincorporated areas from Anthony to Tornillo, told the El Paso County Commissioners Court that any action it takes does not impact the public fireworks shows. He said county and municipal shows encourage people not to buy fireworks.
“We are ready to handle it regardless (of) whether you ban them. (An) influx will still come from the New Mexico side, and we will still have to deal with the problem,” Esparza said.
State law limits fireworks sales to specific days. Firework sales are allowed to start Thursday, June 24 in the county.
Jimmy Nevarez, who owns about 20 fireworks stands in New Mexico and Texas — including large retailers Diablo Fireworks and Planet Fireworks — asked the court not to make a decision based on their personal beliefs.
“Instead, they should lean on people like Chief (Rodger) Esparza, who knows the best and are trained specifically for these matters, and follow his recommendation to allow limited sale and use of fireworks,” Nevarez said during public comment.
Nevarez acknowledged that “conditions are severe,” but then also claimed the KBDI index is designed and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and “El Paso is not a forested area.”
Nevarez said he would use $5,000 to promote firework safety in local media and he and other vendors would provide cleared areas to shoot off fireworks and assist with clean-up.
District 2 Commissioner David Stout said the county needed to make tough decisions for public health.
“I would definitely advocate for a full ban,” Stout said. “Again, I feel like public safety and public health is where we should be focusing.”
Samaniego said he would take all points of view into consideration.
Cover photo: The Diablo Fireworks stand outside of Anthony, New Mexico, sits just across the Texas state line. Extreme drought conditions across New Mexico and Texas mean that certain aerial fireworks are already banned because of fire risk. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)