Mark Hunter (ozma914) wrote,
Mark Hunter

next week's column: Having a Blast Isn't all it's Firecracked Up to Be


With the major part of fireworks season over, everyone I know maintains the use of all limbs -- so we can count this one as a success.

Some people who buy their own fireworks are, shall we say, a tad bit reckless. the old clichéd saying, “Hey y’all, watch this!” started with explosives, after all, and what are fireworks but colorful explosives?

(Okay, maybe the expression started with a gas tank and a match, but the principle’s the same.)

As a kid, I used fireworks by the trunk load. The burns healed up very well, thank you, and by the way
mom, I want to apologize again. Okay, I was an idiot. Kids and most adults should never have fireworks, especially if the kid’s brother is going to throw them at him or blow up his toys and, on a totally unrelated note, I’m still kinda upset about that.

Here in Albion, the fire department is responsible for setting off the official Independence Day fireworks. There’s some irony in a firefighting organization lighting off the big bangers, but it makes sense: We’ve already got the protective clothing, we know how to handle emergencies, and we’re trained in first aid. Who better?

It takes about a dozen people to do Albion’s display: two lighters, two loaders, four sorters, and four people who patrol the perimeter for wandering bystanders, and any fires that might start. We gather together beforehand to set up the mortars: tubes sunk into the ground and surrounded by sandbags to prevent them from turning to shrapnel in the event of an accident. Afterward everyone patrols the area to pick up parts. Firework parts, that is, not people parts. That almost never happens.

Basically, the sorter sorts out the different sizes of fireworks and gives them to the loader, who loads them in the tubes. Then they’re lit by the lighter, who lights them. Pretty simple. The fourth group is on brand patrol. No, we’re not choosing next year’s styles; I’m speaking of fire brands, pieces of flaming debris that drift away from big blazes and can start fires downwind. It’s not a huge danger in fireworks, because they explode high up, and what’s left is designed to burn up by the time the remaining bits and pieces hit the ground.

Oh, and the remains are biodegradable -- although I would think the whole concept of fireworks would go against the environmentalist crowd to begin with.

You might think I like brand patrol to avoid those firing tubes, and that’s a good point -- but the truth is, if there’s going to be a fire I want to be there. This year our little corner of Indiana’s been dry, so the fire danger was higher than normal. We dispatched two brush trucks and four firefighters, just in case, and I positioned myself where I thought the majority of the debris would fall.

Oh, don’t worry -- we’re talking very small bits of debris, thumb sized at most. They make helmets and protective clothing for that kind of thing, and I was wearing it all. If grass or brush lit up during the fireworks, I’d be close by. Further downwind was a brush truck, and not far from that was the other brush truck, and for an hour that was be best protected field in the county. There was nothing to worry about, as long as the bombs actually went all the way up, and exploded where they were supposed to.

A few tiny fires did break out, and were quickly doused. In the glare of the fireworks going off, I looked for smoke; in the pitch dark between, I looked for flames. It was as safe an operation as you can get, if I do brag so myself. In fact, things went so well that I actually got some pictures of the fireworks, although not the best photos ever. Using a digital camera to capture flying objects just as they burst in a pitch black sky is problematical, at best, not to mention having to check between shots to make sure I wasn’t standing in flames.

At one point two fireworks exploded in the sky, to the oohs and ah’s of an appreciative audience. I didn’t notice that three had actually gone up, until that third one exploded on the ground, twenty feet in front of me.

It was one of those flash-bang mortars, which emits one white flash and a huge boom rather than throwing colored sparks all over the place. Since I’d have been at the center of the constellation of colored sparks, I consider that a good thing. Instead, it was much like having a giant elephant drop kick me in the chest. (Yes, I’m aware elephants can’t drop kick -- it’s a metaphor.) My teeth rattled, my ears rang, and a cloud of smoke right out of a war movie fountained up in front of me.

Why the fuse was so long on that one, I don’t know; I keep picturing some fireworks assembler in China, gloating to himself: “Let’s see how the Americans like getting this one in their lap!” But accidents happen -- I wasn’t wearing all that protective gear just for the heck of it.

That was the extent of the mishaps, that night -- but next year I’m going to move a bit further back, just in case.

Phil Jacob, most experienced man on our department and guru of both fire prevention and fireworks, plots strategy for the night's display.

Pretty tubes, all in a row ... the largest will destroy your house. The smallest will only blow up your cat. That's one of our brush trucks in the background, along with the truck that the fireworks were kept in for sorting. Both moved way back before the show started.

Somewhat shaky pictures of various fireworks. This was before I almost blew up, they were even shakier afterward.

Part of the finale. With all the tubes plus the extra ordinance all being shot off at once, I was mostly too busy to hold the camera steady.

Tags: albion, firefighting, new era, slightly off the mark, weekly column

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