Familymakes a living pyro-style

Published on Thu, Jul 6, 2006 by Jack Kintner

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Family makes a living pyro-style

By Jack Kintner

“The way to light one of these shells off is to asssume a runner’s starting crouch, facing away from the fuse,” said Jay Jacobsen of Marysville, the man in charge of Tuesday’s Fourth of July fireworks show, “and point the least valuable part of your anatomy at the device. Once you light the quickmatch fuse, it will burn at 20 feet per second, and that’s fast – faster than you can run away from it.”

Jacobsen was choreographing six lighters who between them would use lighted traffic flares to send up 480 three, four and five inch shells out of plastic barrels made of stout PVC pipe, plus a half dozen roman candles the size of pickup truck axles and another dozen “cakes,” fixed mortar arrays in boxes the size of a large TV that are interconnected with quickmatch fuses and lit all at once, with boxes included.

In all, $13,000 worth of brown paper, string and black powder went up in smoke, along with various metallic compounds for color: strontium for red, magnesium for silver, barium for green, sodium for yellow and so on.

Some of the shells are cylindrical and, according to fellow pyrotechnician Elliot Woodward, are a little harder to predict than the spherical ones – roughly the size of a softball – which give a globular display.

“Sometimes they have these little red caps on them that burn as the shell goes up, like a tracer,” he said, “and some of them have little tubes packed with powder inside that spin and whistle once the main shell explodes. We’re often just as surprised as the audience, since the labels the Chinese manufacturer puts on them are sometimes a little vague.” He recalled one shell from a previous show that was simply labeled “grapes all over the vineyard.”

A couple of ounces of black powder launches the shell skyward, about 100 feet for every inch of diameter. The powder also ignites a timed fuse inside the shell that blows it up at the top of its trajectory.

When asked why they don’t light off the fireworks from a console of some kind, with electric switches, Jacobsen turned with a wide-eyed grin and said “Well! That’s no fun at all!” It’s also no guarantee of safety, he said, since the most dangerous part of his work – checking his launching apparatus afterward for unexploded shells – would be the same.

The two families, Jacobsens and Woodwards, however, have been blowing off major ordnance together for over 40 years.

The two men and their wives and children have so much experience that the parent company, Western Display of Canby Oregon, gives them their choice of shows.

“We like coming to Blaine,” said Jacobsen, “we really do love it here because it’s beautiful, and a nice place to do a fireworks show, very convenient and the people are nice. I mean, instead of being out on a barge in the middle of some bay, we have everything right here, even our motorhome.”