46th Albuquerque balloon fiesta set for weekend launch

AP

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) The 46th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is set to begin Saturday and is expected to draw close to a million visitors to central New Mexico.

But concerns over crime in Albuquerque and the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas have organizers stepping up security measures. Here are key things to know about the event:

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THE BALLOONS

The 2017 festival features about 500 traditional hot air balloons and 94 balloons that are shaped to make them look like bees, Elvis Presley, Smokey the Bear and others.

This year's balloon festival theme is "Inflate your Imagination." The fiesta's morning mass ascensions launch this weekend, Wednesday and the weekend of Oct. 14-15.

Seventeen of specially shaped balloons will make their first-ever flights, officials said. Among the entries this year are the "Armadillo" from Brazil, "Pepe the Hedgehog" from the Czech Republic and "Busby the Queen's Guard" from the United Kingdom.

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SECURITY

Balloon Fiesta officials said authorities will check peoples' bags and purses at all entry gates and park and ride locations in response to the shootings in Las Vegas. No firearms will be allowed at Balloon Fiesta Park unless carried by law enforcement officers. Bicycles, skateboards and displays of gang colors and gang signs also are banned.

Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden announced there would be "enhanced security" measures in place but declined to give details.

The beefed-up security comes as Albuquerque's rising crime rate has dominated the current mayoral election. FBI statistics released last week show violent crime in Albuquerque last year jumped around 16 percent. In 2016, the city had a violent crime rate of 1,112 incidents per 100,000 residents. Albuquerque had a violent crime rate of 965.8 in 2015.

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CONTESTS

The 2017 America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race, one of many competitions at the Balloon Fiesta, starts on Saturday.

The object of the race is for pilots to fly the greatest distance from Albuquerque while competing within the event rules.

The teams often stay aloft for two to three days and must use the winds and weather systems to their best advantage to gain the greatest distance. Flights of more than 1,000 miles are not unusual, and the winners sometimes travel as far as Canada and the U.S. East Coast.

Thursday and Friday will showcase special shape balloons launching each morning and glows static displays of hot air balloons at sunset in the evening.

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THE WEATHER

The National Weather Service says much of Albuquerque is expected to see sunny weather throughout the week.

How and when the balloons launch depends on the wind. Pilots have to take into consideration wind patterns to avoid landing on American Indian land where balloon operators can be charged for making landings.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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