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LIGHTING UP THE SKY!

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By LARRY ELLIS

Special to The Pilot

Editor's note: On Friday, July 4, Pilot freelance photographer Larry Ellis spent the day shadowing pyrotechnician Mike Moran and his crew as they prepared for and launched the annual fireworks extravaganza at the Port of Brookings Harbor.

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For many people the Fourth of July means a day off from work, relaxing at the beach with family and friends, building sand castles and barbecuing.

But if colors bursting in the night sky sends you into a delirious 20-minute trance, multiply that by 1,000 and you'll know what it's like to be part of a pyrotechnic crew.

Fireworks are both beautiful and dangerous. Pyrotechnicians, or pyrotechs, risk their lives every time they handle one of the many shells that produce the two-second burst that delight people of all ages.

When asked why he risks injury, one pyrotechs said, "It's an adrenaline rush you'll never forget."

Local resident Mike Moran is a licensed pyrotech and has been putting on the fireworks display at the Port of Brookings for 24 years.

"I remember when it first started," said Moran, who also works for a local radio station.

"That was in 1980. We only had a budget of $2,500 back then."

The cost of this year's fireworks show was approximately $17,500.

"We have a total of seven licensed pyrotechnics," Mike said. "We have the largest licensed pyrotechnic crew on the Oregon Coast."

Only a licensed pyrotech has the qualifications to operate and supervise a fireworks display of this magnitude. To become a licensed pyrotech one is required by state law to be over age 21 and have served as a pyrotechnics' assistant at a fireworks show for three consecutive years.

Miss one year and the person must start over from scratch, again serving as assistant for three consecutive years. You can start being a pyrotech's assistant when you turn 18.

Joining Moran is Amanda Estes who has served as assistant for three years but has been working on the crew much longer.

"I've been digging trenches since I was 12," Estes said.

She has one more year to serve as assistant before becoming eligible to test to become a licensed pyrotech. She will then have more extensive training, testing and, upon completion, will have earned her license.

To keep the license, a pyrotechnic must retest every two years. If the license expires, a person will have to start all over again as assistant.

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On July 4, the day started out bright and early with the entire crew partaking in a hardy breakfast and then going over safety regulations and procedures. These safety drills will be repeated numerous times throughout the day.

The crew then headed for the beach, a cordoned off area south of Sporthaven Beach, and started digging 24- to 30-inch deep trenches. Long tubular devices called mortars are placed in trenches, which are filled back in with sand.

Mortars are positioned at a 45 degree angle directed toward the water in an elliptical pattern. The mortars look like PVC tubing but are actually made from a polypropolene composite specially designed by fireworks manufacturers. These tubes come in 3, 4 and 6-inch inner diameter. The 10- and 12-inch mortars are made of steel.

A shell with a long, fast-burning fuse is placed in each mortar. Each shell matches the inner diameter of the mortar. When the fuse is lit, rapid-burning gunpowder projects the shells 300 to 600 feet into the sky where it explodes.

The fuses on the 3, 4 and 6-inch shells are lit with flares by licensed pyrotechs, while the 10 and 12 inch shells are detonated electronically. The 6-inch shells are the size of cantaloupes, the 12-inch shells are the size of basketballs.

A special area is reserved for detonating these 10- and 12-inch monsters – around the rocky point at the lower end of Sporthaven Beach.

Jay Romine has been supervising this operation for several years. While I wanted to photograph this section of the beach, I chose not to, out of respect to the power of which Romine is entrusted. When one is responsible for detonating 10- and 12-inch shells, you need all your concentration at your disposal, with no distractions.

Most shows go on without serious injuries to the crew. But there is a worst case scenario called a "hangfire." A hangfire occurs when the shell either prematurely explodes inside the mortar or, even worse, the end of the mortar becomes plugged, causing the mortar itself to explode sending shrapnel and debris from the shell within the perimeter.

Although hangfires are rare, they do occasionally happen. I was instructed if someone were to yell, "hangfire!", not to run, but to hit the ground immediately face down and wait until someone from the crew says that it is safe to get back up.

The mortars that the fireworks manufacturers designed out of a polypropolene composite are designed to contain the explosive safely and to stretch, not explode. But the steel mortars still pose a hazard due to hangfire.

All shells must be accounted for to the state fire marshal and every effort is made to find non-detonated shells. The mortars are pulled out after the show and the holes are filled in. The area is heavily policed for fragments, debris and ash, which is then disposed or burned that night.

All of the crew, including the licensed pyrotechs, volunteer their time so that Brookings-Harbor and all our guests can enjoy this spectacular light show every year.

The crew includes licensed pyrotechs Keith Eaton, Pat Erb, Mike Moran, Brennen Moran, Tom Owen, Randy Parton and Jay Romine. Assisting them are Norman Boatman, Amanda Estes, Ross Garrott, Gary Hall, Jeff Jon, Jerry Jones, Zach Owen and Arthur Wiley.

My thanks to Mike Moran for his hospitality and making me a crew member so that I could photograph the event.

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