Behind the scenes of the Tracy fireworks show
Jul 12, 2013 | 2492 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jason Chambers (left) and Luis Torres line up mortar tubes on Wednesday, July 3, in the H.J. Heinz Co. factory parking lot as crews prepare for the Fourth of July fireworks show.  Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
Jason Chambers (left) and Luis Torres line up mortar tubes on Wednesday, July 3, in the H.J. Heinz Co. factory parking lot as crews prepare for the Fourth of July fireworks show. Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
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As the temperature surpassed 100 degrees, John Hanson and his pyrotechnic team of five-handpicked men diligently arranged dozens of mortar racks on July 3 to create the colorful display that would fill Tracy’s night sky on the Fourth of July.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Hanson, as the team positioned wooden racks of pipes about 3 feet tall next to the former H.J. Heinz Co. plant. “People don’t realize the amount of work to make sure a show like this goes off.”

Hanson, a pyrotechnician, is a subcontractor for the fireworks company Fireworks & Stage FX America based in the west hills of Tracy.

He said Fireworks America has been responsible for entertaining Tracy residents on Independence Day for the past five years. This year’s display was the grand finale of the Fourth of July celebration at Lincoln Park.

Pyrotechnicians, who are experts in the handling of fireworks, use varying shell sizes to create colorful, crackling displays that soar into the sky, he said.

“Every show is different, no two are the same,” Hanson said. “This will be close to 600 (fireworks) shells. Our biggest was the 14,000 shells for the Super Bowl in San Diego in 2003.”

Over the course of a few hours the evening of July 3, Hanson and his team laid out dozens of mortar racks, nailing some of them in groups.

Technicians returned the following morning to fill the mortars with fireworks.

Once the mortar tubes were filled, the final step was wiring the entire display together to an electronic board more than 70 feet away that is used to synchronize the explosions.

Safety is the most important aspect of the show, Hanson said.

“It’s definitely a very dangerous business,” he said. “I got my pyrotechnician’s license two years ago, but I worked for Fireworks America for 12 years” (setting up a variety of shows).

According to Jim Acker, operations manager for Fireworks America in Northern California, the company expanded to Tracy in 2000 and employs three to six people. He said the local facility is used strictly to house fireworks in military-style bunkers and ship them out for shows in the western United States.

“It’s just a storage facility,” he said. “We don’t manufacture anything. We buy fireworks from all over the world — China, Japan, Korea, Spain, Australia.”

He said Tracy’s central location, surrounded by major freeways, is convenient, because the majority of shipments arrive in oceangoing containers at the Port of Oakland.

Acker said that a choreographer handpicks fireworks and designs each show based on the client’s budget, which is determined through a bidding process.

Workers package up the shells and ship them to the location of the show for setup by pyrotechnicians.

“Some say they just want those that go boom, or some just want colors, it depends upon the occasion,” he said.

Tracy spent $16,000 for this year’s show, according to Sofia Valenzuela, president of the Tracy Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to annual Fourth of July displays, he said his company has provided indoor fireworks for entertainers such as Kiss, Rush and AC/DC and special effects for the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings basketball teams.

“Twenty-plus years, we’ve done them all at one time or another,” Acker said.
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