Putting the "Work" In Fourth of July Fireworks

June 26, 2015

Over 750 fireworks to go off over Clear Lake

By Joe Kukura
June 30, 2015 – You wouldn’t believe all the work that’s put into Fourth of July fireworks.

Independence Day fireworks involve many months of careful planning and thousands of miles of traveling around the world—even for one small American town two hours north of San Francisco.

For more than 40 years, Lakeport, California, with a population just under 5,000, has been shooting its Fourth of July fireworks over the top of Clear Lake—the oldest lake in North America—and it’s always determined to make it bigger, better and far more spectacular each year. To that end, Lakeport brings in the big guns to handle its pyrotechnics.

Pyro Spectaculars by Souza is a California-based fireworks firm that handles fireworks for the 35th Annual Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks event and several other fireworks displays around the world. Show producer Matthew Gilfillan took some time to explain to us how Lakeport puts on its Fourth of July show—no small feat considering that he’s currently planning about 75 fireworks events nationwide for the upcoming holiday weekend.

“We will be performing between 750 and 800 [fireworks] shots in Lakeport,” Gilfillan said. “Our pyrotechnic operator that’s performing the display has performed all the displays in Lakeport going back at least 10 years and has lots of experience there and has always done a great job.”

Months of careful planning and work go into acquiring and setting up those 750-plus fireworks that are shot from pontoon boats on Clear Lake during the 20-minute display. “It really starts back in the fall,” Gilfillan said. “We begin communication with city officials—the city manager—and we decide on what we’re going to try to do out on the lake this year and set a budget. I design a custom program and get all the insurance and agreements and boring stuff out of the way.”

Once the boring stuff is out of the way, Pyro Spectaculars travels the world in search of the fun stuff—the large-scale aerial fireworks. “We usually visit China a few times a year, and other countries around the world where fireworks manufacturing is widely prevalent,” Gilfillan said. “We import from all over the world: Europe, Asia and also North America.”
It’s usually around the end of the winter or beginning of spring when they start receiving the fireworks. Once they have all of them, Pyro Spectaculars begins to thoroughly inspect all of its inventory and maintains a database of each pyrotechnic, what it does and any safety concerns that it might have.

“Safety always goes hand-in-hand with the product, of course,” said Gilfillan. “We develop and test our products to make sure that they meet the highest safety specifications, as well as all of the regulations provided by the dozens of different regulatory agencies that have their hands in making sure that the fireworks that are used are safe, they’re transported in a safe manner and that the equipment that we use to discharge our fireworks is also safe.”

The regulatory requirements for fireworks—even for a small town like Lakeport—can be staggering. For the Clear Lake fireworks show, Pyro Spectaculars must prove its compliance on a local level to the Lakeport Fire Department, on a state level to the California Department of Transportation and even on a federal level to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, “to get the proper permits and licenses to possess, transport and perform with these products,” Gilfillan said.

The city of Lakeport has four pontoon boats from which the fireworks are launched using an automated electric firing system. The fireworks are ignited electronically, not by hand. “We don’t use manual discharging,” said Gilfillan. “This is an electrical firing system. So the technician has to understand how the firing system works and set it up and prepare it properly.”

Once the entire electrical firing system is set up, each of the nearly 800 fireworks is installed, one-by-one into an individual mortar. An electric match that initiates the lift charge gets wired into the firing system, a manual step repeated hundreds of times for every single firework. Once the hours of painstaking electrical wiring are complete, the fireworks are ready to soar.

The pyrotechnic operator will monitor weather and visibility conditions on the 4th, waiting until the skies are dark enough, typically just before 9:30 p.m. to set them off. The display lasts just under 20 minutes, but of course culminates in an unforgettable and fantastic grand finale.

Gilfillan designs and choreographs each show individually, and no two Pyro Spectaculars fireworks displays are ever the same. But the Lakeport Fourth of July fireworks display over Clear Lake is particularly special.

“In this case, it’s really great because we’re out on the lake. There are no major obstructions,” Gilfillan said. “We can layer the [fireworks] all the way from water level to 800 feet in the air, and it’s all very nicely visible from the shoreline or from a boat.”
Now that you know how much work actually goes into producing a spectacular fireworks display, make plans to cozy up on Clear Lake on the 4th.

“We’re real happy to be performing in Lakeport, where we’ve been doing this display for [nearly] 40 years now,” Gilfillan said. “It’s a really special place to watch fireworks with the kind of display we do and the added elements of the reflections on the water.”