Fireworks techs prep for ‘playing in the sky’

Volunteers with the Juneau Festival Association are preparing launching tubes for this Friday's fireworks display. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)
Volunteers with the Juneau Festival Association are preparing launching tubes for this Friday’s fireworks display. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Organizers of the Independence Day fireworks display say crowd reaction and their own enjoyment will often dictate the pacing of the annual waterfront spectacle.

Volunteers with the Juneau Festival Association on Tuesday began positioning the various tubes on a state fisheries barge for launching the fireworks. This Friday, just before the display, they’ll load nearly 700 shells into the launching tubes, connect them to firing squibs, and wire them up to a set of switchboards.

Gary Stambaugh says they plan out a show much like any theatrical or musical production with pacing, high points and easy, low interludes. But instead of following any performed musical piece, he says they generally follow their own rhythm and the music in their heads.

“It’s more of what’s playing in the sky. And when you have lots of stuff going off, you don’t want to overload it,” Stambaugh says.

Stambaugh says they plan for a 20-minute display, but it will often get stretched out to 25 minutes.

“We can’t help it when something goes up in the sky and it’s so pretty, we just go ‘Stop, stop! Oh, that’s really nice.’ We really enjoy it. By that time we’re also hearing everybody screaming on the mainland. They’re just enjoying the show and we don’t want to disrupt that thing.”

Fireworks shells range from 2 to 10 inches in diameter. Launching tubes for the extra large 10-inchers are placed inside a large box filled with sand.

Fireworks over Juneau's harbor.
Fireworks over Juneau’s harbor. (Photo by Heather Bryant)

There may be as much as a half-a-pound of gunpowder in each shell. But, as volunteer Sigrid Dahlberg explains, each shell may have many components to it.

“At the bottom of every bomb, there’s a lifting charge. That’s what the fuse lights,” says Dahlberg. “The lifting charge gets lit and makes it explode inside the (launching) tube which causes the bomb to shoot up out of the tube.”

Once the shell is up in the air, the lifting charge lights another fuse and the shell explodes.

“Often, there are more and more chains of explosions and that’s where you get the ones that go up and they go out, and then little pieces burst out of that, and other little pieces burst out of that. And they all fall down,” explains Dahlberg. “Those are all chained fuses where one explosion lights the fuse for the next explosion. So, sometimes you have many layers of explosives inside one big shell.”

Unusual shapes like smiley faces, ringed planets, and bow ties are all accomplished with careful timing of the fuses for the secondary lifting charges and display explosives.

The fireworks display is funded by a $31,000 appropriation from the Juneau Assembly. Some of the larger 10-inch shells or bombs can cost as much $400 dollars a piece. Like other municipal services and activities, Stambaugh says funding for this year’s fireworks was cut about $2,000 from last year.

The display will actually start on Friday, the day before Independence Day, at 11:59 p.m. The fireworks barge will be moved to the middle of Gastineau Channel, just off of the downtown library. A 1,500 foot safety zone around the barge will be enforced by the CBJ Harbormaster and the U.S. Coast Guard.

(Spelling of Gary Stambaugh’s name has been corrected.)

Matt Miller

Morning Host & Local News Reporter, KTOO

I’m up early every weekday morning pulling together all the news and information you need to start your day. I find the stories unique to Juneau or Southeast Alaska that may linger or become food-for-thought at the end of your day. What information do you need from me to give your day some context?

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