Lake Union fireworks fun based on a blast from the past
With the Ivar's fireworks over Elliott Bay gone, the Chase Family 4th display over Lake Union is the big show in town.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Getting to the fireworks
Gas Works Park
Organizers expect 50,000 people to descend on Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood for the fireworks tonight. If you plan to attend, get there as early as you can, and if possible, leave your car at home.
By car: You won't be able to park anywhere near Gas Works Park because of roadblocks. (There are a limited number of disabled-parking spots at the park, however.) If you're driving, park as far away as possible to minimize the gridlock getting out.
By bus: King County Metro buses will be on weekend schedules, which means service is limited. In addition, buses that usually run along North 40th Street will be rerouted up to North 45th Street because of road closures. Organizers say if you come to the event by bus, you'd better have an alternate way home.
By bike: There will be an express access entrance for cyclists on the northwest side of the park and bike parking inside.
More than 60,000 people are expected for fireworks and festivities in downtown Bellevue tonight, and traffic delays are expected. Besides arriving early, here's what you need to know:
Street closures: From 9:45-11:30 p.m. the city is closing 100th Avenue Northeast between First and Fifth streets and Northeast Fourth Street between 100th Avenue Northeast and Bellevue Way.
After the fireworks, which are scheduled to start at 10:05 p.m., traffic will be allowed eastbound on Northeast Fourth Street to let people out of Bellevue Square parking garages.
Oh, some things have changed about aerial fireworks since the Chinese are credited with inventing them in the 12th century.
But not the basics.
When you "oooh" and "ahhh" at the big show over Lake Union tonight, you'll be watching technology that still uses rice hulls.
More about that later.
This is the 15th year that Jon Berson, lead pyrotechnician for Pyro Spectaculars — the California company contracted to produce Chase Family 4th at Lake Union — has been shooting fireworks.
When he started in the business, says Berson, "What surprised me was how much physical labor is involved. It's backbreaking work."
Sure, today computers will set commands that electronically fire off the mortars, instead of how it was done in past eras — lighting them up manually with what amounted to a road flare.
But lots still hasn't changed.
On Tuesday, Berson and a crew of 15 began work on two barges docked at Foss Maritime at the Ship Canal along Lower Queen Anne Hill.
There was nothing high-tech about it.
With the Ivar's fireworks over Elliott Bay now gone, this is the big show in town.
The work this week included getting out of trucks some 450 wooden racks on which 2,300 shells will be loaded, and moving sand to put under the racks. The racks have to be placed just so for the choreographed display.
The shells go inside high-density plastic mortars — tubes really, that are basically cannons. Originally, the Chinese used bamboo.
For the bigger shells, 10-inch steel tubes are used. They weigh 110 or so pounds each.
As much as possible, Berson uses rented loading equipment. He's 53.
"I've screwed up my back enough," he says.
Then there was the wiring.
"Thousands of feet of wire," says Berson. "There are 1,416 discrete firing commands."
The shells didn't arrive in Seattle until Friday, having been trucked here from Sacramento, Calif., because otherwise it would violate the city of Seattle's restrictive fireworks-storage ordinance, says Berson.
Berson's background has always included doing something with special effects.
Before he began his fireworks career, he managed sound stages for Roger Corman, nicknamed the Hollywood King of B's for his prodigious output of low-budget movies. That meant working on direct-to-video movies like "Carnosaur" and "The Crazy Sitter."
And before that, Berson was in the laser and lighting business, putting together discothèque installations all over the world.
Then a friend who ran a fireworks-production company suggested that Berson try it.
"I smelled the smoke, as they say," he remembers. "When you're shooting a show, it's a very visceral experience. You can feel the shock wave. It's a pretty intense, thrilling situation to be in.
"It's sort of controlled chaos. There is a lot of stuff flying around, debris, sparks, a lot of noise, lots of bright flashing lights."
At showtime, there will only be four of the crew on the barges. They will be inside a booth about 50 feet from the mortars.
Berson and the three others will have at their disposal six computers, of which only two are needed to fire off the sequences. The others are backups.
The computers are not particularly powerful.
"They're not much more sophisticated than an Xbox 360," he says. "All that thing is doing is going through a list of firing commands."
Berson has to hold down the button — which he calls a "dead man's switch" — for each computer during the entire firing sequence. The show today will last exactly 20 minutes and 20 seconds.
"You start getting hand cramps, for sure," says Berson about holding down the button.
In all his years of doing fireworks, Berson can only remember one time when all the computers failed "and we went manual."
That means gaps in the explosions, and the fireworks not being synchronized to music.
Other malfunctions can happen.
"Fireworks are less than 100 percent reliable," says Berson. "A malfunctioning device a couple of times a show is not unusual."
If it happens to be a 10-inch shell that's supposed to go up 1,000 to 1,200 feet, and spread fireworks across 1,000 feet — and it breaks on deck — "for three or four seconds you get very large pellets," says Berson.
So he wears a hard hat, safety glasses and cotton clothing.
"Nothing synthetic. It melts and sticks to your skin," he says.
Berson says he's gotten little burns from "confetti-sized" pellets, but neither he nor anyone on his crew has been injured any more than that.
Oh, about the rice hulls.
Presumably, rice hulls were first used because they were common in China. Here is what they do:
Inside a shell are pellets that, when burning, produce the colors in a fireworks explosion. Various compounds create various colors — strontium gets you red; barium, green; copper, blue; sodium, yellow. Aluminum, titanium and magnesium brighten the flames.
But something has to ignite those pellets.
So, a pellet is usually hand-rolled around rice hulls that are in the middle. The hulls are light and burn quickly.
When the fuse reaches its end, it ignites a burst charge usually made of black powder and the rice hulls. That then ignites the pellets, and they fly out into the sky. This all happens in less than a second.
Is that getting too technical? Better to leave the details to the pyrotechnicians.
"Why do people like fireworks?" says Berson. "It's that tradition of light, and sound, and warm summer nights, and hot dogs.
"People like fireworks I guess for the same reason they can't keep their eyes off a campfire or fire at a fireplace. You stare at it. It must be genetic."
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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