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Towns weigh July Fourth fireworks against dry conditions in the state

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WASHINGTON – Don’t rush to get a front-seat at Benson’s Fourth of July fireworks show. While the Cochise County town will hold its Independence Day celebration Wednesday, it’s not setting off the fireworks until October.

It’s one of a range of responses by local officials to dry conditions across the state this July Fourth. Some towns are canceling their displays, some are taking extra precautions in advance of their fireworks or, in the case of one town, restoring displays that were canceled last year in the midst of the historic Wallow Fire.

“The fire danger is pretty extreme and it’s going to impact people’s use,” said Arizona Fire Marshal Bob Barger. “Cities, towns and counties cannot prevent the sale (of fireworks), but they can prevent the use.”

Barger said the decision to go ahead with fireworks displays could be a game-day decision for some local governments Wednesday.

“It’s going to be a toss of the coin on Wednesday because there’s going to be monsoon winds and storms coming in,” he said. “Temperatures are going to be a bit lower, but you’ll still have the dry conditions.”

Weather and wildfire officials said the state is in a state of “extreme” fire danger this week in advance of expected monsoon rains. Since Monday, 18 wildfires were sparked in the region, consuming 6,638 acres across Arizona and New Mexico, according to a National Interagency Fire Center incident management report released Tuesday.

Carrie Templin, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management’s Arizona office, said a recent rash of lightning storms has not helped in the midst of the drought.

“We’re starting to see storms develop but to date, they’re starting fires, not bringing us relief by way of rain,” she said.

But Chuck Maxwell, a meteorologist for Predictive Services, said monsoon season should bring relief by shifting from patterns of isolated storms to substantial rainfall. The season is expected to begin this week.

“Peak fire season is right around the beginning of monsoon season,” Maxwell said. “But, it’s better to have your lightning and peak fire season followed by rain season than not.”

Different jurisdictions have taken different approaches to the mix of weather and holiday fireworks.

While Benson postponed its display, the town of St. Johns is resuming its display after canceling it last summer, when the Apache County town was taking in evacuees from the Wallow Fire. But St. Johns is taking some extra precautions first.

“Our firefighters have done some burning out in the area in order to prevent fires from starting,” said City Clerk and Finance Director Evan Nelson. “They’re aware of the dangers and are trying to mitigate them.”

Barger noted that some cities have banned private use of fireworks as a safety precaution. Springerville is one of those towns where people can buy fireworks – they just can’t shoot them off right now.

“We’ve had some rain, but it’s been spotty, so it’s not good enough to lift any bans,” said Springerville Fire Chief Max Sadler.

Even the federal government, prompted by the drought conditions, issued a memo to agencies prohibiting the use of fireworks on federal lands in Western states until at least Sunday.

Templin said that’s nothing new for Arizona.

“Fireworks are prohibited, so there’s no going out to a campground (on federal land) and doing fireworks,” she said. “That’s always been the case.”

Barger said he would prefer that municipal bans on private use of fireworks remain in place for now. But in those areas where fireworks are allowed, he urged people to use caution and common sense.

“No one goes out thinking there’s going to be a fire or tragedy,” he said. “If wind’s blowing hard and it’s dry and we haven’t had rain, don’t set them off.”