Setting up for the most unusual Independence Day fireworks display in recent memory was business as usual for the crew from Western Display Fireworks.
“They still go up the same and blow up the same, right?” said lead pyrotechnician Chad Williams.
Clark County’s only formal Fourth of July fireworks show was due to light up Saturday night without any in-person audience at all, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. It was to be broadcast on live TV by station Fox 12. The event was sponsored by the ilani casino resort and set for launching from a sprawling parking lot at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds.
At noon Saturday, five staffers from the Canby, Ore., company were busy opening cardboard boxes shipped all the way from China and wiring up more than 1,000 explosive projectiles so they’d launch at the touch of a remote button and burst in rhythm with the recorded soundtrack.
That’s called a “pyromusical” show, said lead pyrotechnician David Fitzgibbon, and he should know — he’s been preparing and launching pyromusical shows for Western Display for 27 years now. That’s in addition to his other job as a high-voltage electrician, he said.
Accidents are rare when you’ve been working with fireworks for that long, Fitzgibbon said, but wind and other unforeseen factors can always intervene. A charge that detonated before it had flown very high once scattered flaming debris all over the crew and set Fitzgibbon’s back on fire, he said — but a colleague quickly extinguished the blaze and Fitzgibbon kept right on launching fireworks.
Last year’s fairgrounds fireworks show managed to spark a grass fire in an adjacent field, which was quickly extinguished. On Saturday, a tanker truck was moistening the grounds when The Columbian stopped by to see how preparations were going.
Live audience or no, preparations were pretty much routine, the crew said. They wouldn’t miss the oohs and aahs of the crowd because their mandatory protective gear always includes noise-dampening helmets, according to crew member Alisa Williams.
“It’s going to be a little weird” without a live audience, she agreed. “But, I haven’t really seen a fireworks show in 15 years because I’m not looking up. I’m looking down.”
The main difference in this year’s show, Fitzgibbon added, is that it was designed to be shorter and more intense than usual. The same firepower that’s usually spread across 22 or 23 minutes would be compressed into 15, he said — making for a brighter, boomier, briefer event than live audiences are used to. That was partly to minimize the distraction for drivers on the nearby freeway, he said.
“We really don’t want people pulling over on I-5 to watch,” he said.
Western Display has seen event bookings drop from 300 last year to around 20 so far this year, Fitzgibbon said, and he’s hoping some fairs and festivals manage to resurface in August and September. Meanwhile, the company is sitting on approximately $6 million in fireworks inventory that it bought but can’t use now, he said.
Western Display is a big enough firm to weather that wait, he added, but some smaller pyrotechnics companies probably won’t survive this year’s drop in business.
“It’s been rough on a lot of businesses,” he said. “It’s been rough on everyone.”