Can We Just Say, ‘Enough Already’ To Personal Fireworks?

Los Alamos

A week has passed since the Fourth of July, and yet our evening skies continue to boom and glow with errant aerial fireworks displays launched from residential areas without a second thought about our tinder-dry landscape beneath. Oh, sure, I get it: Fireworks are all about ‘Merica! and the freedom to do whatever the hell we damned well please whenever we get the urge to bust a patriotic nut; it’s what Our Founders wanted us to do, right?

I wrote that last sentence with only the tiniest bit of facetiousness, because I really do understand where that sentiment comes from. Some twoscore years ago (thank you, Abraham Lincoln), a band of brothers and I were addled by a patriotic fervor while drinking fine American beers and passing around spliffs of California sinsemilla in the national forest above Los Alamos around this time of year. We decided what would make the evening even better would be an ad-hoc display of fireworks that would certainly engender the envy and admiration of every resident of Los Alamos. After unleashing our 20-minute salvo of “professional-grade” fireworks into the night sky, and savoring the last drawn-out note of our a capella version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” we noticed a growing bonfire in the woods nearby.

Fortunately, five of my mates and I had just finished obtaining our Red-Card certifications, so we sprang into action, constructing a beautiful and perfect fire line around the growing blaze that was quickly spreading away from the impact zone of one of our patriotic mortars. We had contained the blaze to about two acres by the time the hotshots rolled up to the scene.

“Mop it up, boys,” one of my associates cavalierly quipped as we skulked off into the night before the authorities could start asking all the uncomfortable questions that were sure to follow.

Several times during the years that followed, I contemplated the sheer arrogance and selfishness of that evening, and gave thanks that nothing bad ever came as a result. But Karma can be a real bitch sometimes….

More than a decade later, a professionally sanctioned group of people got together and intentionally set the forest on fire a short distance away from the site of my earlier incident, despite tinder dry conditions and a forecast for continuing howling gales, high heat, and ridiculously low humidity. The Cerro Grande fire incinerated the homes of more than 350 families here in Los Alamos in May 2000, my home and mother’s home among them. For newcomers to town, and even for people who didn’t lose everything to the fire, it is impossible to fully comprehend the magnitude of loss experienced by the victims of disaster. While town leaders at the time tossed around the glass-half-full mantra that “nobody died” in the inferno, the passage of time has shown that, in many cases, death transcends the merely physical.
Eleven years after our community burned, the Las Conchas fire roared through the burn scars of Cerro Grande—something the “experts” swore could never happen—on a relentless march toward town. I clearly recall sitting in the Laboratory’s Emergency Operations Center as the fire burned right over us when a seasoned wildland firefighter stated with a peculiar mix of fear and awe that, in all of his years of experience, he had never witnessed fire behavior like what he had been seeing out there on the front lines that terrible evening.

“We are in uncharted territory here,” he said.

In the wake of these conflagrations and out of an abundance of caution dictated by our changing climate, I often wonder why our local elected and appointed officials have not had the intestinal fortitude to entirely ban the use of fireworks by nonprofessionals in Los Alamos County. I wonder why our local police aren’t aggressively arresting those who endanger the lives and property of local residents through the willful negligence of ad-hoc fireworks displays? Then I remember that our County is addicted to federal grant money in much the same way that some Hollywood stars and influencers are addicted to cosmetic surgery. Disastrous wildfires have furnished our community with vast infrastructure and personnel upgrades, including new firehouses, tanker trucks, water tanks and utility lines. The list goes on and on.

Some years after Cerro Grande, I had the bald-faced audacity to contact my local elected officials about the way a particular infrastructure upgrade project was negatively affecting the quality of life of my family and my neighbors. One of the councilors harangued me and told me that “I should get down on my knees and thank Jesus” for all the infrastructure improvements that came to our community as a result of the Cerro Grande fire. Never mind the losses and heartaches of some 350-plus families. But Karma can be a real bitch sometimes. Shortly after that conversation, that councilor succumbed to some kind of painful, terminal disease, and the entire once-bustling business sector of our community dried up and blew away.

I guess it took moving into my autumn years before I could come to realize that the “freedom” to irresponsibly use illegal fireworks on a whim isn’t necessarily free, and that the pursuit of dollars on the part of local government trumps doing what is in the best interest of the community every time.

So to all the community newcomers and all the incidental “Libertarians” out there who have a hard time with impulse control, I guess I’m simply asking, “Can we please at least just act like we all enjoy a sense of shared fate as members of a community and just say, ‘enough already,’ to personal fireworks?” The Kiwanis display at Overlook Park is always outstanding and entertaining enough to linger in the weeks following our nation’s most patriotic holiday.

In a world full of fire, floods, plague, pestilence, and death, it’s hard to say what series of events will cause the cosmic dice to line up in such a way that someone ends up colliding headlong with a hypersonic chunk of space debris. Karma can be a real bitch sometimes.