July 4 fireworks banned for fear of wildfires

From Arizona to Florida, there will be fewer oohs and aahs at the rockets' red glare this Fourth of July: Many cities and counties across the nation's drought-stricken southern tier are banning fireworks because of the risk of wildfires.

From Arizona to Florida, there will be fewer oohs and aahs at the rockets' red glare this Fourth of July: Many cities and counties across the nation's drought-stricken southern tier are banning fireworks because of the risk of wildfires.

New Mexico's governor prohibited fireworks on state and private wildlands and pleaded with people not to buy or set off pyrotechnics. Authorities in the lone Georgia county that banned sales shut down roadside vendors and made sure fireworks were off store shelves. Dozens of Texas cities have canceled shows, from large events in Austin and San Antonio to small-town celebrations where folks usually sit on blankets at parks and lakes.

"People are, of course, disappointed, but they know what could happen if the fireworks show did go on," said Sherri Davis, a city clerk in Saint Jo, a 1,000-resident farming community about 70 miles north of Fort Worth.

Parts of nearly a dozen states, from the Southeast to the West, are in a severe drought. And wildfires have charred thousands of square miles in recent months.

Some parts of the affected region already ban the sale or use of fireworks — or at least the types that explode or scatter fireballs, such as bottle rockets and Roman candles. This Independence Day, more expansive restrictions are in place, with many areas outlawing even sparklers.

While there have been a few protests and at least one court challenge, many people seem to have no problem with the precautions.

In Texas, most counties are now under burn bans, which prohibit some or all fireworks sales. Most Texas cities prohibit fireworks year-round anyway, but counties usually allow people to sell and use them twice a year, for about two weeks before Independence Day and New Year's Day.

Amid the bone-dry brush along Interstate 10 near the U.S.-Mexico border, dozens of roadside booths were shuttered last week in El Paso County, which banned all fireworks. But in the adjacent city of Socorro, vendors were still allowed to sell them.

"I think this year sales are going to be better because people want what they can't have," said Michelle Saucedo, who runs a fireworks business in a Socorro warehouse. But she said she has been urging customers to be more careful this year. Blazes have scorched more than 5,100 square miles in Texas and have been blamed in four deaths — three of them firefighters — since the wildfire season began in November.

El Paso's Puerta Del Cielo Church expected to raise $2,000 to $3,000 in its annual fireworks fundraiser for a youth retreat. Because of the El Paso County ban, the church now must rely on donations.

"Our other option would be to sell water on the streets, and that would raise $200 in a two-week span, but now we cannot even do that because the city just banned that," said Tania Lemmon, the youth group's leader. The city cracked down on street sales of bottled water because some vendors forged permits or had no permits at all.

Florida has many fireworks stores and stands. Technically, the only legal fireworks in Florida are those that emit small sparks and smoke, but there is a big loophole: Customers can buy rockets and explosives if they say the items will be used for such purposes as scaring birds and other pests away from farms or fish hatcheries. Police make almost no attempt to enforce the law.

But Florida wildfires this year have blackened more than 390 square miles, and two firefighters were killed recently, so nearly half of the state's counties are now banning fireworks. On the Atlantic coast, Flagler County scrapped its fireworks show.

The San Antonio Fire Department canceled all of the city's fireworks displays, including popular shows at Sea World and Six Flags Fiesta Texas, a move tourism officials said would cost the city revenue.

For nearly 40 years, Pat Hammond and her husband have organized a Fourth of July parade in their San Antonio neighborhood. Normally, she and other folks then settle in and watch the city's fireworks. She said she will miss the spectacle this year but is glad the city is erring on the side of caution.

"You might think I'm easily entertained, but if it's a beautiful night and there's stars, that's a greater thing than fireworks," Hammond said. "I won't sit around sobbing without fireworks."

___

Associated Press writers Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Paul J. Weber in San Antonio, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., Mark Carlson in Phoenix, Charles Bartels in Little Rock, Ark., Russ Bynum in Woodbine, Ga., Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Fla., and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla., contributed to this report.

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