Blaine fireworks show draws record crowd

Published on Thu, Jul 10, 2008 by Jack Kintner

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Blaine fireworks show draws record crowd

By Jack Kintner

Last Friday night’s fireworks show at Marine Park was started off by former Blaine Chamber of Commerce president Pam Christianson when she touched a highway flare to the fuse of what’s called ground cake, an array of mortars arranged like giant cans of beer in a huge case the size of a small refrigerator.

Within five seconds the mortars went up, box and all, and Blaine’s annual fourth of July Fireworks show was underway.

Christianson and her husband Bob, owners of Pacific Building Center on Bell Road, are long-time supporters of community events in Blaine. For the last ten years they’ve been working with Western Display of Canby, Oregon, to put on the annual Fourth of July show, the biggest in the county except for Bellingham, the only other professionally produced display.

This year $16,000 worth of brown paper, string and black powder went up in about 25 minutes of noise and smoke, seasoned with various metallic compounds to lend color: strontium for red, magnesium for silver, barium for green, sodium for yellow and so on.

The local celebration is by far the biggest annual event in Blaine, and really got going after Bob Christianson convinced others to combine Blaine’s traditional summer community event called Skywater with the Fourth of July celebration about six years ago. The lack of any other small-town Fourth of July celebrations nearby, along with a parade that traditionally brings out over 100 entries, draws crowds in the thousands, and most stay for the evening show.

The man chiefly responsible for a smooth and safe fireworks operation each year is Jay Woodward, a professional hot-air balloonist and licensed fireworks technician from Carnation. Most of his 30 or so helpers are from two families, the Jacobsens and the Woodwards, who have been blowing off major ordnance together for over 40 years.

Each year they camp at Marine Park and assemble the sand piles, PVC cannons and fireworks charges for the show, much of it while sitting around on chairs gabbing like gypsies at a quilting bee.

“This year Jay asked me if I wanted to light the first batch, and at first I was a little hesitant because you can die doing this, right?” Christianson said.

After test shots at 8:15 and 9:15, and an answering salvo of fireworks from White Rock in a sort of salute to the American Fourth, she touched off the first box.

By the time the impressive opening salvo was headed skyward in a blaze of light and commotion, Christianson had quickly sprinted back to a viewing area reserved for the families that produce the show and a few sponsors.

“We had some run-throughs beforehand, and Jay was very clear about how to do this. He’s very safe,” Christianson said.

“You assume a runner’s starting crouch, facing away from the fuse,” Woodward instructed, “and point the least valuable part of your anatomy at the device in case there’s a problem. The quickmatch fuse will burn at 20 feet per second, and that’s faster than you can run away from it, so you touch the fuse and then look away, because by then it’s already going off.” Rookies have a tendency to look back at the blast, he said, but that’s an invitation to a facial burn should something go wrong.

But in the more than 40 years that the families have been doing this professionally, beginning with a Rose Bowl in the 1960s, nothing has ever gone awry.

Once Christianson had set her box of mortars off, Jacobsen continued by firing off another burst while coordinating six other lighters with lighted traffic flares. Together they sent up 480 three, four- and five-inch shells out of upright PVC barrels lined up and half buried in a long sand bank, plus a half dozen roman candles the size of pickup truck axles and another dozen ground cakes.

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

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, Elliot Woodward 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.

Jake Jacobsen, 73, is the clan patriarch and is still active in producing the show. He got his start doing Rose Bowl half-time shows 52 years ago. He met his wife Meg after teaming up with her brother in the early ‘60s, and through him met the Woodwards. The two families and a lot of their progeny are still at it, having so much experience that Western Display gives them their choice of shows.

“We like coming to Blaine,” said Woodward, “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 in a couple of motorhomes.”

Jay Woodward holds the license for producing the show. “There’s a shortage of qualified pyrotechnicians,” he said. “A half dozen or so of us here are qualified and have been licensed in the past, but since [Western Display] always needs more licensed people to do this, if those people were still licensed they’d send them somewhere else. But there’s only one Fourth of July every year, and we’d rather work together here in Blaine.”

If you’re interested, and for more information, contact Woodward at the Balloon Depot in Carnation at 360/805-1538 or go to webmaster@balloondepot.com.