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Going behind the scenes of Steamboat’s big fireworks show

Andy Kerrigan sets up a rack of fireworks Monday at a launch site above the Brent Romick Rodeo Arena. Volunteers put in hundreds of hours to set up the big show.
Scott Franz

— After spending nine hours wiring explosives together and carefully dropping dozens of fireworks into mortar tubes on Emerald Mountain, I’ll never be able to watch this city’s grand Fourth of July fireworks show the same way again.

I now know that, behind the 17 minutes of glory in the evening, there are hundreds of volunteer hours, lots of wiring sessions, dozens of rolls of masking tape, hundreds of feet of wire, several cans of bug spray, plenty of sweat and more than a few safety checks.

Oh, and there’s the jokes from cyclists who pass by and witness the setup. (If you thought your joke asking a member of the fireworks crew for a lighter was original, think again.)



“It’s kind of surreal,” Kate Spillane said as she and our merry band of volunteers sat down to wire fireworks together in what we later dubbed an explosive knitting circle.

Think of it as knitting, but instead of yarn, you’re working to fuse together matches coated in gunpowder attached to a large explosive.



When you work with fireworks, it’s OK to make a few jokes to take the edge off.

Just don’t ever lean over a mortar tube filled with the bombs.

I was in awe of the dedication these volunteers put into this show.

The 3,800 shells that explode and light up the night sky in front of thousands of revelers come from four sites on Howelsen and Emerald Mountain, and each site has its own team of volunteers.

This small army of 23 volunteers spent most of the day Monday carefully loading shells into mortar tubes, rigging up wires to the fireworks and completing a myriad of other tasks.

Our site was led by Sam and Kate Spillane, who drive up from Denver every year to help out and watch the show.

Though our work was serious and potentially dangerous, their experience and teaching skills made setting up a launch site much easier than I expected.

It helps that Kate Spillane is known in firework setup circles as the Martha Stewart of firework prep owing to her attention to detail.

And the Spillanes pride themselves on the 99.9 to 100 percent explosion rate at their site. (You may not notice when the fireworks don’t go off, but they do.)

Fireworks guru Scott Middleton drove from site to site on a Gator and always magically had the needed materials.

And you need lots of materials to rig up a launch site.

Staple guns. Masking tape. Duct tape. Razor blades. Plastic. Rolls and rolls of tin foil. Sunscreen. Bug spray. Wires.

You have play with them all.

Our site, perched on a meadow above the Brent Romick Rodeo Arena, was bustling with activity from 7:45 a.m. until about 5 p.m.

I was glad to see that many of those cyclists who stopped by to make the lighter jokes, horseback riders and hikers thanked the volunteers for what they do.

After the fireworks are all set up and covered in foil and plastic to ride out any storms, volunteers remain onsite to babysit them for several hours.

Firefighters stand by at each site during the show, ready to put out any blazes the fireworks might cause.

A shooter, a spotter and volunteers will stand behind a bunker wearing hard hats and launch the fireworks electronically.

The morning after the show, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps members will clean up the aftermath.

The work Monday and Tuesday is preceded by hours and hours of prep work that begins days before the show.

I was sitting with Winnie DelliQuadri, the city’s government programs manager and assistant to City Manager Gary Suiter, in a barn Sunday wiring fireworks with other volunteers.

She said she never would have predicted her job description at the city would include wiring fireworks and helping to organize such a big show.

I’m glad I finally realize the hours of work that go into making this show happen and that I got to go behind the scenes for a day.

“It’s interesting, because everyone loves fireworks, but almost no one knows what it takes to make it all happen,” volunteer Kris Hammond said as we made our way down Emerald in the evening.

He also had a good reason to volunteer.

“If you volunteer, you get a front row seat to the best show in town,” Hammond said.

Next time you watch those 17 minutes of explosions in the night sky above our beloved ski hill, remember the dozens of people who spent hours and hours wiring, taping and double checking everything to make sure they lifted off.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10


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