Waite explained the process using the annual Kingsburg Independence Day celebration as an example. The Kingsburg Chamber of Commerce sponsors the event yearly on July 3 at the Kingsburg High School football stadium. Each year, the show is customized taking into account variables such as where the audience is located, what the weather will be like that day, structures that are close by, where the fireworks racks will be located, how long the show will last, what time the show will begin and what the budget will be. No two shows are alike.
Costs range from $15,000-$40,000 depending on the show. Once a deposit is received, the fireworks are ordered from overseas, often China. They’re ordered months, if not years, in advance and are placed in a warehouse. Interestingly, China only has one port that allows for the shipment of fireworks which lengthens how long it takes to arrive. When asked about supply chain issues, Waite said that hers were ordered pre-pandemic, so there haven’t been problems. Her bigger challenge is obtaining rental trucks. She is competing with companies like Amazon and UPS to obtain rental trucks on the dates that she needs them.
As the show date draws nearer arrangements are made to transport the fireworks to the location. A variety of permits and paperwork are required, even a surface road route needs to be submitted for approval. On the day of the event racks are built, strategically placed and cleated in an area that is fenced in so no non-crew member can get too close. By now, all the crew have been qualified and confirmed to be over the age of 18. The fire authorities can inspect at any time. They look for fire extinguishers, the quality of the canisters, the placement of the canisters, the ages of crew members, and the operator’s current license.
The State Fire Marshall issues the operator licenses. Each year, the operator is given a sticker similar to the car registration stickers on license plates. The thickness of those stickers is a matter of pride. It indicates how long the operator has been doing shows.
An operator and his/her crew are assigned to each show. In Kingsburg’s case the same family has produced the shows for decades. When the operator, Ron Fernandez, passed away no other family member wanted to become an operator so Waite’s daughter, Jamie Wright, stepped in to operate with the Fernandez family crew. Wright, and the Fernandez family crew also have full time jobs elsewhere.
According to Waite, “The operator is considered an artist and the show is artistry. They determine the altitude of the fireworks, color combinations, frequency and type of fireworks. The show will include higher fireworks, combined with shorter ones. There will be pauses for the sky to become completely black, because the dark sky is considered the fabric that is being used to paint the sky. Sometimes you want to slow down in anticipation of the buildup. Towards the end there’s usually a 1 to 1 ½ minute finale. It’s all hands-on deck, everyone shoots and gives that final effect that the audience is expecting.
When it’s time to begin the show, everyone is in their assigned place and knows which mortars to set off when. Like a symphony, the operator is the conductor and the crew have the instruments to create the art from a combined effort. Even the music has been choreographed into the production.
After, the crew waits for the racks to cool, then everything is loaded up and transported to the next show. Locally, Waite manages 90 shows per year.
As mentioned earlier, the operator for Kingsburg’s July 3 event is Jamie Wright. At a young age, she worked in a fireworks stand with her parents. They would bring home fireworks and she would create a show in their front yard. Her interest in fireworks continued to blossom. Just days after her 18th birthday she began working on a crew. Just after her 21st birthday she applied and was granted an operator’s license. When the Fernandez family needed a new operator, she was able to slip right into the role and has continued the tradition.
I had the opportunity of observing the show from behind the scenes at this year’s event. It takes about 12 hours to set up, be inspected by the local fire officials, load the canisters with fireworks, launch the show, wait for the fireworks to cool, and load them onto the truck. You are not allowed in the area unless you wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, closed-toe shoes, a hardhat and goggles.
The material for the canisters is delivered separately from the actual fireworks. The canisters get there first and the crew begins lining them up. Once the fireworks are delivered, security becomes tightened. No one under the age of 18 is allowed in the area and there must be someone always guarding them.
The most interesting part of the experience was watching the crew light the fireworks. One member crouches down with a punk and lights the fuse. There is a person behind him/her watching for burning ambers once it’s ignited. The operator is further off telling them how fast or slow to go depending on the choreography of the show. Because of the demanding physicality for the person lighting the fireworks, the lighter is exchanged several times.
The finale canisters are set away from the regular show’s canisters. In our show there were 660 fireworks in total. Of those, 125 were earmarked for the finale. Only one fuse is lit and then the entire set is structured to go off in the order of all the connected fuses.
The perspective from the backstage vantage point is completely different than from the audience’s perspective. But, it’s fireworks so whether you’re in the front or the back of the show, you’ll definitely get a bang for the buck.