It’s the hottest time of the day when staff from Fireworks Productions of Arizona arrive at the Ahwatukee Country Club to begin set up for the annual Red, White and Boom celebration.
Dozens of racks of thick plastic tubes must be secured to the ground before the staff can load in the fireworks. The tubes will help keep the fireworks shooting upward as staff use flares on long poles to light the fuses. A trailer is also unloaded with dozens more racks waiting to be filled with shells. The electrical trailer will fire off rounds with the press of a button but will take hours to wire correctly.
This time of year the business is a love-hate relationship for owner Kerry Welty, an Ahwatukee Foothills resident. There are more than 50 shows the company put on during the Fourth of July week alone. Each are in different cities and will require different permits and understanding of different regulations. Even the day of, some fire departments will have different demands to keep the crowd safe. It’s a lot to juggle but once the flares are lit and the show is on, it’s a lot of fun.
“I think shooting fireworks is really more of an extreme sport than most extreme sports,” said Kendon Victor, pyro productions manager for Fireworks Production of Arizona. “It’s controlled chaos. Things are exploding, fire is going, debris is falling down. People who do this love the adrenaline rush. There’s really nothing like standing right next to an explosion and it not killing you.”
Most employees are introduced to lighting fireworks through a friend. They do it part time during the summer and have other full-time jobs. There are dentists, construction workers, engineers, and more.
“Once you start doing it you love it,” Welty said.
The business is non-stop during the month of July, but Fireworks Productions of Arizona provides fireworks for events year-round. The group shoots off fireworks at sporting events, weddings and proms.
Fireworks Productions of Arizona doesn’t manufacture any fireworks. The air is too dry and the chemicals too dangerous to try manufacturing their own, Victor said. They get them from American and Chinese companies and store them in a secret location. Once unpacked from the cases the fireworks all look like small cardboard hot air balloons. Once the equipment is set up, the crew has some time to get hydrated and get dressed. While shooting fireworks employees wear a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt — cotton because it won’t melt to the skin if a spark hits it — and a hood like firefighters wear over their heads. They’re also required to wear goggles and ear protection.
Once everyone is dressed they wait for the call to start.
“That is the longest, worst, five minutes of your life,” Victor said. “You’re pumped, you’re ready to blow stuff up, and you have to wait. You’re out there pacing back and forth, staring at your flare. Once it comes, for the next 20 to 25 minutes it’s pure adrenaline rush.”
The work isn’t done once all the fireworks have gone off. There’s a great deal of clean up and there’s a long process to make sure each firework goes off. Once the equipment is packed up it’s back to the office for a cold drink and to revel in what went well and what went wrong.
It’s a fun job but the best part of shooting off the fireworks, Victor said, is right after the grand finale.
“Right after the finale most head pyros will tell you to take your ear protection off and listen to the applause,” he said. “We are an anonymous entertainer. No one knows who we are. No one besides sports stars and rock stars gets to hear the applause of thousands of people enjoying what they do.”
The company spends the next few weeks collecting checks, conducting surveys, and making sure all the loose ends are tied up. They’ll get a short break in August and then it’s back to work preparing for next year’s big fireworks holiday.
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