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Fireworks: Behind the big booms that light up Anchorage skies

Suzanna Caldwell
Safety is paramount when working with hundreds of explosive devices. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Workers splice together fuses for the finale, where over 300 shots will be fired. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Most of the fireworks are electronically triggered via cat 5 cable. Some, however, are triggered manually with road flares. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Boxes of fireworks wait to be loaded into their mortars. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Lori Koeneman attaches an electronic fuse to a 6" shell. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Meghan Clark, co-owner of Alaska Pyrotechnics, loading shells for Anchorage's 4th of July fireworks show. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Cat 5 cable runs from the mortars to the control unit. Most of the 1500 shots in the show will be electronically triggered. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Ezra Kaufman tests the cat 5 cables before attaching them to the charges. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kylie Clark, co-owner of Alaska Pyrotechnics, loads a 6" shell into its mortar. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Lori Koeneman, left, and Morgan Osborn attach electronic charges to 6" shells. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kevin Coe, in the orange shirt, directs others at the prep for Anchorage's 4th of July fireworks show. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A sign outside the prep area where Alaska Pyrotechnics is setting up the fireworks for Anchorage's 4th of July show. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kevin Coe moves some of the mortars into place. The 4th of July show will have over 500 mortars and a total of 1500 shots. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
849 pounds of fireworks were delivered for the July 4th show. July 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

Behind Mulcahy Stadium, in a parking lot between baseball fields and the Anchorage Football Stadium, Alaska Pyrotechnics has a lot of PVC pipes to deal with.

It's just after noon on Tuesday and Kylie Clark has a firework show to put on. Pipes, set into racks, are being staged in the parking lot. Long, heavy duty phone cables are strewn out on the ground. She's on the phone to the city trying to get a garbage collector out. They usually don't come on Tuesday, but the dumpster in front of the staging area -- where all of the fireworks will be carefully ignited at midnight -- is full of garbage and a potential fire hazard.

Oh, and the fireworks still haven't arrived.

Oldest fireworks company

It's just a day in the life of Clark, co-owner of Alaska Pyrotechnics along with her sister, Meghan, and mother, Vivian Dietz-Clark.

Clark and her company are in charge of fireworks following the Anchorage Bucs vs. Anchorage Glacier Pilots baseball game. Included in the 20-minute display will be a "blaze of glory" for Bucs founder and former general manager Dennis Mattingly. Mattingly died after a long battle with cancer in January.

Alaska Pyrotechnics started in 1949 and is the oldest fireworks company in the state. Clark's father, Rodney, purchased the company from the Norene family (including former Alaska state and territorial representative Jim Norene) in 1983. Dietz-Clark was the first female licensed pyrotechnic operator in the state.

Clark -- a third generation pyrotechnician-- and her sister took over in 2008. Since then, they've travelled across the state -- to locations like Barrow, Bethel, Kodiak, Aniak, Cordova and Circle -- putting on fireworks displays for public and private events.

Tonight's display at Mulcahy Stadium following the game will be a "big standard" show, Clark said. There are bigger -- some that could be twice as big -- but tonight is a common-sized show.

Gary Lichtenstein, director of baseball operations for the Bucs, said it costs about $20,000 to put the entire show together, including costs associated with vendors and permits.

It all comes down to what the client wants, Clark said. The owners said shell count was important, so there will be lots of explosions and a variety of experiences.

"We lay it out like a menu," she said. "We can go in several different directions."

Music, whistles, booms, concussions

Music will be played in the stadium in sync with the fireworks, but there will also be plenty of noise -- Clark's favorite special effect. Whistles, booms and concussions ("Where you really feel it reverberate inside you," she said.) plus shells that change color, spiral, corkscrew or "falling leaves" where it appears the sparks falling to the ground don't go out.

About 15 people are needed to put the show together. Most wear thick, lined Carhartt coveralls -- better protection than regular blue jeans. If a spark or fire occur, they offer more protection. Some of the operators, who manually light the shells using traffic flares, wear bright silver flame-retardant suits.

The operation takes almost 24-hours to complete. After tonight's show, Clark and her team will search the field and surrounding areas for unexploded shells. That’s a rarity, she said, but it’s always done as a safety precaution. The next day she and the team will return to the field to clean up any debris and do a final shell sweep.

It's just another small challenge in a series of complications. Winds can affect whether or not a show can go. Everything is covered to protect it from rain, even when there is none. Permitting can be seemingly a never-ending and frustrating ordeal. Even getting the fireworks shipped from supplier Wolverine West in Washington state can be a struggle.

But Clark had a nine-to-five job once and didn't like it. The opportunity to do project work -- even with occasional 24-hour work shifts -- and to do it with her family, makes the work rewarding.

"I like that I'm on the inside, making it happen," she said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com