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Silverton’s Fourth of July out of control, officials say

San Juan County sheriff: Drunken behavior sours small town’s biggest event
Event organizers have turned Silverton’s Fourth of July celebration into a more family-friendly event. But there are still issues to be worked out, said San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad.

After a chaotic and dangerous Fourth of July celebration, Silverton’s flagship event of the year must make drastic changes, event organizers say.

San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said authorities were overwhelmed July 4 by drunken behavior, illegal fireworks and “endless displays of aggression.” He said next year, a stronger police force will be needed to help with the unruly crowd.

Gilbert Archuleta, chief of the Silverton-San Juan Fire and Rescue Authority, said three firefighters were injured setting off the town’s famed firework display. Firefighters voted Tuesday to end the show unless an electronic system, which costs $6,000, is purchased.

“A lot of the crowds we’re attracting (are) not the crowd we want here,” Conrad said. “They get drunk. They fight. They act like the rules don’t apply to them ... and we don’t need them up here defecating on our community.”

The Fourth of July celebration draws thousands of visitors to enjoy the mountainous scenery and fireworks show, one of the biggest on the Western Slope.

In recent years, however, rampant debauchery has stressed the town’s ability to handle the event.

The issue came to a head in 2016, when a 14-year-old boy from Durango, partying with a large group of underage drinkers, drank too much and almost died. Later in the day, a part-time volunteer with Silverton’s fire department drove off a county road and went into Cement Creek. He was suspected of drunken driving.

At the time, DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said the 2016 celebration served as a “major wake-up call.” The next year, organizers sought to change the tone of the event by providing more family-friendly events.

The event went off successfully in 2017, Conrad said. And the celebration posed no difficulties last year when the 416 Fire raged south toward Durango.

But all that changed this year.

The issue was first reported by the Silverton Standard & the Miner.

Conrad said two motorcyclists were caught riding nearly 60 mph on a residential road. Illegal fireworks and open containers of alcohol were widespread and uncontrolled, and officers responded to several late-night fights.

“We get these full-faced tattooed gangsters from Albuquerque and Grand Junction who tend to be pretty aggressive,” the sheriff said.

Archuleta said the fireworks show featured 1,800 shells. However, four exploded on the ground, shooting off debris and injuring three firefighters. One person required stitches.

“When shells explode like that, everyone in the vicinity could get injured very seriously or even die,” Archuleta said.

All the large shells in the show are set off electronically, Archuleta said. But the smaller shells that injured his crew are still launched by hand, and Archuleta doesn’t want to take chances.

“We’re not trying to hold anyone hostage, but we won’t do the show unless we can do it safely,” he said. “We’ve taken all the precautions we can, and it’s worked out until now, and we just can’t take chances anymore. It is scary.”

Gallegos said residents feel this year’s Fourth of July celebration was a success. Despite the bad behavior, no one was arrested and no one was seriously injured. And, throughout the day, families enjoyed the downtown offerings, like the Carnival in the Park.

“When you think about where we came from three years ago, this is still a more wholesome and better environment,” she said.

Still, there’s room for improvement, especially because the Fourth of July celebration will fall on Saturday next year, Gallegos said.

Conrad said he will seek assistance and extra officers from neighboring communities next year. He also plans to use video surveillance throughout town to catch people who break the law.

“We’re publicizing we’re not tolerating it, and we will charge people who act like the rules don’t apply,” he said.

To donate money for an electronic launch system, give to the Friends of the Fire Department, PO Box 532, Silverton, CO 81433.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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