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Drought-Stricken Communities Ban Fireworks Ahead of July Fourth

As the Fourth of July holiday approaches and severe drought conditions persist through much of the United States, the regulation firework usage among residents is becoming a major issue in many communities.

El Paso County, Texas, recently instituted a complete ban on the purchase, use and possession of fireworks by residents. This became the fourth consecutive year that the county has implemented a ban.

To determine if there is a drought in the county and if the town can take action to regulate fireworks, Ruben Vogt, director of public policy for the county judge's office, said that in Texas they follow the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI).

The index measures from zero to 800, with zero representing no moisture depletion and an index of 800 representing severe dry conditions. If the index goes above 575, the state will acknowledge that the county is in a drought situation.

Currently, Vogt said that El Paso County is right around the 700 mark.

Beginning with the county judge issuing a disaster declaration for up to seven days, this can be extended by the county commissioners' court for up to 60 hours, there is a rigorous process to implement a ban of this nature.

For the ban to go any further, Texas Gov. Rick Perry must give his approval. If approved, the ban will typically last through July 5, one day after the fireworks sale period ends.

When determine if fireworks should be banned, several factors are taken into account during the evaluation process. The drought monitor, soil dryness and the amount of precipitation that the region received compared to their normal average are all taken into consideration.

"It's not a trivial decision," Vogt said. "There are lots of measures and steps that we have to meet to be able to ban them completely."

Although fireworks are banned for residential use, Vogt said that professional displays organized by cities are not banned, so there are still numerous ways for people to celebrate.

"All of it really does have to do with the drought," Vogt said. "The drought really is what drives our not desire but our want to keep the community safe."

"Why add another fire hazard when we don't need to?"

Other parts of the southwestern U.S. are also issuing restrictions for fireworks.

On June 12, Doña Ana County, New Mexico, issued a 30-day proclamation, declaring extreme drought and placing fireworks restrictions throughout the county.

"Due to the drought, Doña Ana County has banned the use of all fireworks within areas that are covered wholly or in part by timber, brush or native grass," according to a statement on the county's website.

According to the county's website, "permissible fireworks can only be discharged in areas that are paved, barren, or that have a readily accessible water source."

The state of California has been ravaged by the drought this year and according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, much of the state is currently in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

This past winter was one of the driest in recent memory, so the snowpack in the mountains is subsequently quite low, according to Meteorologist Dave Samuhel.

This is a problem because the melting snow provides a lot of the summer drinking water, Samuhel said.

According to the drought monitor's website, the state will have to wait until the 2014-2015 water year, which begins Oct. 1, for drought relief.

"This is because in October, the jet stream's seasonal shift drops it south and strengthens it, leading to rain-bearing storms coming off the Pacific into California," Samuhel said.

Several large wildfires have already unfolded across the state this year and firework bans are now in place across the state, especially in the state forests. The California Department of Forestry and Protection (CAL FIRE) has responded to more than 2,500 wildland fires this season, according to a news release.

"There is a good portion of the state that bans fireworks," CAL FIRE spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff said, adding that these fireworks bans are consistent and implemented by counties or cities across the state.

The fireworks ban is a direct result of potential hazards and the fire risk, which is compounded with the extended drought in the Golden State.

"California is very prone to wildfires, so there have been limitations on fireworks," she said. "Due to the extended drought, it is very worrisome."

Similar to El Paso County, commercial fireworks displays hosted by cities or agencies are different from fireworks purchased by average consumers, but are still subject to extensive safety inspections and guidelines, Tolmachoff said.

"They are permanent events that are watched by fire marshals," she said.

The only fireworks legally permitted in the state are ones that do not launch into the air or explode, which are available for purchase at local fireworks stands. These can often be referred to as "Safe and Sane" fireworks.

However, Tolmachoff cautioned that there is still an inherent risk in using any type of firework and that a responsible adult should always be present when celebrating with fireworks.

"Even though they are ‘safe and sane,' they can still catch things on fire and can still burn you," Tolmachoff said, adding proper safety and common sense can help ensure a fun holiday.

"It is important to keep children away and to watch from afar, so that everyone can enjoy the fireworks." Staff Writer Michael Kuhne contributed to this story.