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Countdown to the Fourth

The work starts early each year to make bombs burst in air on Independence Day

Every July, Americans celebrate our nation’s birthday with fireworks. The crowd gets quiet as the sun goes down, waiting for the countdown to illuminate the sky in a bombastic and awe-inspiring yearly birthday ignition.
    It only takes a moment to ignite a firework, the touch of a match or more accurately, the push of a button. It takes far longer to organize a large-scale celebration.
    Starting July 5, event planners will be working on next year’s big show — fundraising, planning and spending. There’s a long countdown to ignition.

Five . . .

    Most cities and organizations that plan Fourth festivities know who to call to light the fuse on next year’s show. Annapolis has been using Pyrotechnico’s services for more than 10 years. Chesapeake Beach has been working with Fireworks Extravaganza for so long that town Special Events Coordinator Pat Carpenter remembers the earlier, old-fashioned Fireworks Productions.
    Some get to work faster than others. Herrington Harbour Marina in Rose Haven picks the date for fireworks three years in advance but doesn’t call the contractor until two weeks before showtime.
    But then again, the managers of one of the biggest private shows around are easy to please.
    “We like an intense show, with an intense finale,” says Jed Dickman, Herrington marina manager. “We’re not the experts, they are. If we tell them we want an intense show, they’re going to put a lot of pops, bangs and booms in there.”

Four . . .

    Want a choreographed show with music? Custom shells? A shell up to four feet in diameter? It’s only a matter of money.
    “Costs are all over the board,” says Kris Lindberg, Maryland-Virginia regional manager for Zambelli Fireworks, out of Pennsylvania, which oversees 200 to 300 shows a year. “The bigger and fancier the shell, the more designing, the more they’ll cost.”
    Fireworks companies mold the show to the client’s budget, breaking down the cost shell by shell. Chris Weir, the man in charge of July 4th Annapolis, says fireworks shows can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000.
    Larry Beard, of  Fireworks Extravaganza, says prices start at $10,000 for an 18- to 20-minute show and go up from there.
    “We can make it longer,” says Beard, of clients who want to stretch their $10,000 budget. “But you’re going to have a whole lot of black sky.”
    Even the guarantee of elaborate shells will carry the show only so far. Most technicians cap their shows at 25 minutes.
    “The main thing is figuring out the best bang for your buck,” Herrington’s Dickman says. “There is a time limit where people eventually do lose interest.”

Three . . .

    So people don’t lose their limbs, local fire marshals inspect every site. Once the launch site has been cleared for liftoff, crews can get to work. For standard non-treacherous terrain, pyrotechnicians mobilize quickly, unloading the truck, nailing down the mortar racks (the small cannons launching the fireworks), then loading those launchers in only a few hours. That’s the easy way to do it.
    But at Herrington Harbour, fireworks are lit on a jetty stretching into the Bay.
    “It takes most of the day to get set up,” Dickman says. “It’s not easy for them in our location, with the jetty and the rocks.”
    Shows shooting fireworks off of barges like Annapolis and Chesapeake Beach start setting up the day before.
    “We’ll move the barges down the day before and start loading up early in the morning,” says Charles Crandell of Edwin A. and John O. Crandell Inc.
    Crandell supplies the tugboats and the barges.
    Crandell brings a tug and two barges from the West River down the Bay to Fishing Creek for Chesapeake Beach’s Independence Day fireworks show. The barges are loaded at the docks at the Rod ’n’ Reel.
    “There’s limited space to work with. You go swimming if something’s wrong,” Lindberg says.
    On the barge, a crew of six oversees the launchings. Crewmembers huddle behind a three-quarter-inch plywood shelter of three walls, a roof and a small window.

Two . . .

    Most Independence Day celebrations are staples in their community, and people come in droves, inundating roads and businesses. The people in charge have to be prepared.
    The Calvert County Sheriff’s Department provides Chesapeake Beach with a traffic flow plan. The Beach Trolley rests for the day because of the flurry of activity.
    “It’s wall-to-wall people, it’s wall to wall cars. I’m sure the place will be buzzing all day,” says Sharron Humm, Chesapeake Beach town clerk.
    The Fourth is the only day of the year Herrington Harbour opens to all comers. About 10,000 revelers show up for the party. When you mix those people with a day of sunshine and alcohol, according to Dickman, you need a couple of county police to quell potential chaos.

One . . .

    When night falls and the first shot fires into the air, the workers behind the scenes can breathe a sigh of relief.
    “The actual fireworks themselves are the least time-consuming piece of the day,” Herrington’s Dickman says.
    Twenty to 30 minutes of nothing but fire igniting the sky. Then it’s back to work. After the last shots are launched, crews wait about 25 minutes for the mortar racks and tubes to cool before dismantling them.
    “Right when it’s done, they get out of Dodge,” says Rod ’n’ Reel managing partner Wesley Donovan. “That night, they’re gone.”