An acquaintance of mine surprised me a few weeks ago with an invitation to be a worker on a fireworks crew that would be firing off the official Indepence Day fireworks shows for the cities of Ilwaco and Long Beach, Washington. These cities are in SW Washington, across the mighty Columbia River from Astoria Oregon, about 5 miles from the mouth of the river. These cities are about 2 ½ hour drive from Portland. Of course I said yes.
I know Herb, the pyrotechnician, because he is the President of the local 3D camera club I belong to. I had no idea he had this side business going. Herb also has a Federal Employee Possessor Permit which allows him to be the person “in possession” of high-level fireworks. He also has pyrotechnician licenses from Washington and Oregon, as does his wife. That means driving the truck, and being responsible for them until they are lit. Pyrotechnicians are people with the federal license to supervise crews and be responsible for professional shows. Herb is both. He provided me with a ‘turn-out’ which turns out to be the suits fire-fighters wear when they turn-out to respond to a call. They are big and heavy, but if they get a small burn hole in them are no longer considered safe for firemen, but are fine for shooting fireworks.
On my own I had to buy a hardhat with visor, and a “nomex” hood. A nomex hood is worn by welders to protect the face and neck from sparks. In the fireworks business, they protect you from sparks and such falling out of the sky. You look like a terrorist or an executioner when you wear one. I had a pair of Kevlar gloves I use for grilling, so I didn’t need to get welder’s gloves.
We met at noon, July 2 at Ilwaco, which is a small city on the Columbia. At one time it was big in logging, but now is mostly recreational boating and vacationers. A city work crew had dug a trench with a backhoe on the semi-sandy banks of the Columbia, a few hundred yards from the harbor, which had about 400 boats docked in it. The trench is used to hold the mortars that launch the shells into the sky, but unfortunately for some reason they then refilled it half-way with sand. There is a safe zone of at least 500 feet in each direction from the row of mortars, which meant is was about 1100 feet wide and 1000 feet deep. A piece of string tied to posts marked the area off, and a few times we had to scat people away. But our first job was to dig the trench deep enough for the mortars to be installed. The trench was 100 feet long, and 2 to 3 feet deep, so a lot of sand went flying. I’m glad to say this oldster received a compliment from a pyrotechnician for “good spade work.”
The mortars themselves are black pieces of plastic pipe, technically high-density polyethylene (HDPE) stronger than the black PVC pipe, but looking similar. I was told that if I wanted to make my own, using black PVC would be a good way to get a trip in an ambulance. The mortars are referred to as “threes, fours, and fives” referring to the diameter of the mortar in inches. The mortars are about two feet long, with one end open, the other sealed. They are mounted in frames made of 1” plywood, which keeps the pipes in a row in sets of 10, 4 or 5 mortars.
After the trench was dug out, we placed the frames in according to a diagram created by Herb. They were pointed towards the river, from 10 to 15 degrees off of vertical. Occasionally the line of mortars was broken by a box of rockets called a ‘cake.’ The cakes were similar to the ‘rocket launchers’ I like to fire on the 4th, an 16×16 set of little rockets that go off one after the other from a single fuse. In this case, each cake had six sets of 5 shells (not rockets, although they look similar when they go up), all in a cardboard box, topped with a sheet of aluminum foil, and a single fuse.
We had to clean the mortars of old paper debris from the last time they were used, using a device that looked like a medieval mace. Then each mortar was loaded with a shell of the proper size. All the fireworks are made in China. I thought the shells would look like rockets, but they were more shaped like a whiskey jug in the old “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith” comic strip, minus the finger hole. Each had a fuse about 2 feet long attached to it at the top. We lowered them in by the fuse, and tamped them down with the back of a shovel. Then each fuse was rubber-banded to the mortar to keep the wind or percussions of launching from getting them away, and the fuses were all stretched out in a row towards the middle of the trench.
At this point Herb ordered pizza for the 8 of us, and around 6 o’clock we had a couple of hours break. Herb, as the responsible party, stayed with the array.
At 8:30 we met again and got instruction on how to light the fuses, and the general procedure. Half of us had not done this before, but there were two pyrotechnicians, and a couple of experienced people. Then we put on our attire, sat in the camping chairs we bought, and waited until 10 pm. Several hundred people were gathered around the harbor, and probably twice that were on the boats docked in the harbor. Non-commercial fireworks went off occasionally.
The fuses for the shells are wrapped in paper, and at the end have an exposed fuse, like on a smoke bomb. They are designed so they can be lit with an electronic system, or with fire. The electronic systems are expensive, so we used automobile flares. When 10 pm came, the first volley was fired—a series of “threes” that had been linked together by Herb, which he called a “chain.” After that down the line we went, pulling the protective cover off the fuse and touching the flare to it.
Each lighter had someone behind them, holding another burning flare in case the lighters went out. Three people were there with fire-extinguishers, and two others with extra, unlit flares. The fuses would burn a second or two before sending the shell into the sky. As a rule of thumb, each inch of diameter for the mortar would send a shell 100 feet up, so our biggest shells went up 500 feet. Poom, Poom Poom! Smoke everywhere, and the percussion of the launching hit your body like a hard shove, again and again. The two lighters were about 15 feet apart, shifting themselves down the line in the trench, so that shells were firing quickly. I only had time to look up a couple of times, and then only for a glance. After firing about 20 mortars, the lighter would step back and the back-up would jump in and continue the process. Occasionally we would pause to light a cake, but those lasted about 30 seconds and then back to lighting. 16 minutes after 10 the grand-finale was finished (another task for Herb) and the show was over.
We had to wait 15 minutes for the mortars to cool, which we used to take off the turn-outs and such, and then we started pulling the racks out of the sand, stacking them up, and loading them back in the truck. Ninety minutes later we were done. I went back to my room, stepped into the shower, and watch the soot come off of me. Then to bed.
We had July 3 off, and I went to a state park and hiked around. Then on July 4, Long Beach. The process was similar (except the trench was dug by a backhoe while we were there) in a fenced off area on the beach—a rectangle about 500 feet square. All around us were hundreds, maybe thousands of people setting off their own fireworks. What a show! The city manager of Long Beach had come to join the work crew because this was his first fireworks show and he wanted to see how it was done. (A good guy too, he pitched in with loading and grunt work.) He said that the quality of the fireworks was better than the usual backyard-style explosives because the local Indian Reservations did not have to comply with state law, although they weren’t quite at the level of what we had. as they still have to comply with federal law. Still, it was astounding- I’m really not even sure why we were there. The locals starting firing in earnest around 8:30, continued through our 10 o’clock show and on to midnight. The city manager had been a Marine in Iraq, and at one point said “This is crazier than Fallujah.”
Myself and another lighter had small injuries from flying ash and fuses. In my case, I hadn’t properly put on the turn-out, and the pant leg didn’t entirely cover the top of my boot. So something burning went down the top of the boot and gave me a couple of small burns. The other lighter was burned on the hand by a sputter of the flare she was holding that went down her glove. She felt the burn in her left hand, so instinctively moved the fuse over it with her right to take a look. Naturally, another piece fell off into her glove, leading her to pull her right hand back, where the flare was then under her face-shield, filling her with smoke. In the end, she had some blisters and a good story.
This was interesting, but I don’t think I will do it again. It was actually quite a bit of work, you can’t see the show, and I found the thumping on my body as the shells went off unpleasant. But I’m glad I had the opportunity, and will have a greater appreciation for professional fireworks shows in the future. And I got a t-shirt with the company logo and “Crew Member” on it, to impress people at the gym.