Behind the scenes with pyrotechnicians before 4th of July fireworks shows

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Ashley Bailey/KPCC

Pyro Spectaculars in Rialto will put on more than 400 fireworks shows over the holiday weekend including Southern California's largest fireworks show at the Rose Bowl.

Consider this as you contemplate a long holiday weekend: During this time of year, the workdays start early for pyrotechnicians. They’re the men and women who produce public fireworks displays. It takes years of training before those technicians can light their first match.

In the 30 years since Jeff Martin got into the fireworks business, his dedication hasn’t flickered. He still loves that he gets to blow stuff up for a living.

“I like the colors that go with it and just the ‘wow’ factor," says Martin, "to be able to look in the sky and say 'Ooooh yeah, we helped design that part of it.'"

Design is only one part of Martin’s job. He conducts dozens of Fourth of July displays – he calls them “sky concerts” – from beginning to end across Southern California.

This year he looks forward to lighting up the sky over Redlands, his hometown. That’s where he first caught the “fireworks bug” as a kid, when he watched techs set up explosives before a show.

“I thought ‘I want to do that someday. That looks so cool,’" says Martin. "Watching them do all the firecrackers and it looked like dynamite when I was a kid, but obviously it wasn’t. As years went by, I had to be careful what I wished for because there I am in my own hometown, doing the same show I watched when I was 7 or 8 years old.”

Was it as cool as he thought it would be? "Way better," says Martin.

He dreamed about working with fireworks for years, but he wasn’t legally able to get his pyro license until he turned 21. Martin says he managed his landscaping business while remaining on-call to apprentice with techs when he could.

“They used to tease me that I would hold a sign out in front, a cardboard sign that said ‘will work for fireworks’ – for free, basically – because that’s how much I loved it.”

Now, Martin is a sales manager at Pyro Spectaculars based in Rialto.

Company president Jim Souza says that, like Martin, he’s always carried a torch for the sight of red, white and blue sparks lighting up the sky. Souza once considered an engineering career. But working around fireworks excited him more.

“I call this a show business," says Souza. "All my education I can certainly apply into the business side, but my talent, creativity and vision I can apply to the show side. You combine that – you’re in show business and you’re having fun.”

Souza grew up in this "show business." His grandfather started Pyro Spectaculars more than 100 years ago.

Five generations of Souzas have worked there. The company that calls itself the largest of its kind on the West Coast will launch 400 shows across the nation during the three-day holiday weekend.

Souza says he often travels to Europe and China to buy and test fireworks. He shoots stills and videos of shows. When he finds a product he likes, he tests it at a desert site.

He says his company constantly seeks out new colors and long-lasting effects. “You can actually see the performance of it, see if the red is still the same bright red as it was last time, so we may change the show around. So when you get to the show site and you see that go off and the crowd cheers – that’s payday.”

About 1,400 certified pyrotechnicians in California take credit for this holiday weekend’s “oohs” and “ahhs.” But before they can, each one must complete two years of training, and an exam from the state fire marshal, Tonya Hoover.

She says her agency re-certifies techs every year to ensure they’re up on new regulations. That’s only one reason she urges non-techs to leave fireworks handling to the professionals.

“It boils down to public safety," says Hoover. "Remember we’re dealing with pyrotechnic powders, hazardous materials, explosive devices that shoot into the air and throw flame. Can you imagine sending someone out that doesn’t have the experience, doesn’t have the basic knowledge of the requirements and the law, doesn’t have the training, and have them go out and do a pyrotechnic demonstration?”

Because he knows his stuff, Jim Souza of Pyro Spectaculars says he’s ignited fireworks since he was 12 years old and he’s never been hurt. His dad wasn’t so lucky – he sustained an injury in an accident about 40 years ago.

“He was doing what we call 'firing manually' – meaning he’s lighting it off with a hand flare – and the product blew up prematurely right out of the mortar and damaged his hand," says Souza. "His partner who he was working with actually lost his hand.”

Souza says injuries don’t happen as often these days because techs like him don’t have to work with live fireworks as much as before. Often he doesn’t need to leave his desk to test the way a show will look.

“This is a visual simulator that we use to design shows with so we can actually have a preview of what it’s going to look like with the fireworks going off to the music," says Souza. Miley Cyrus's "Party in the U.S.A." is playing. "And if we don’t like something, we can come back and change it – change the angle, change the color through the colorful database we have. So this is a new program we’re working with and it seems to be working really well right now.”

To translate a program from the screen to the night skies, his employees fill trucks with mortars and racks for as long as a week before they head to show locations. Souza says most techs leave at 5 in the morning on the Fourth of July to prepare for night shows that might last 15 minutes.

Pyrotechnicians like Jeff Martin say that’s because staging a fireworks show isn’t as simple as lighting a match. It’s long, hot, sweaty, dirty work.

“It’s like Thanksgiving dinner," says Martin. "You start early in the morning and then you don’t eat it until that afternoon. Then everybody goes home and you’re stuck with cleaning up the mess.”

Martin says he doesn’t mind that mess. On July 5, he’ll start getting ready for next year’s holiday extravaganzas.

They might include his son, John, who just turned 21. The younger Martin is getting his hazmat license – so he can transport fireworks.

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