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Having a Blast Behind the Scenes

Thomas P. Caldwell - July 1, 2013

Charlie St. Clair

Charlie St. Clair prepares a rack of fireworks shells for a show in Ashland.

Pyrotechnists — those brave souls who risk potentially serious injuries to put on a great fireworks show — do it for something more than the pay, for the money does not adequately compensate for the time involved; and they do it for something more than the glory, for they are mostly unknown to the crowds who come for the Fourth of July or other community celebrations.

“Other than the company owners, I don’t know anyone who would do this for the money,” said Charlie St. Clair, a pyrotechnist who puts on the annual fireworks shows in Ashland, Gilford, Weirs Beach, and Wolfeboro. “The payoff for me and my crew is the satisfaction of having a happy crowd, and hearing people cheering.”

St. Clair, who has been involved in area fireworks for 44 years, said a typical show may last 15 or 20 minutes, but for the crew working the event, there is another eight to 10 hours setting it up, and, once the crowds are gone, the crew is still on the scene, breaking it all down.

Because Independence Day creates the biggest demand for fireworks, crews such as St. Clair’s find themselves very busy over the Fourth of July Weekend, with little time between shows. The Weirs Beach fireworks display in Laconia begins at midnight on the Fourth, so the crew is setting it up on Wednesday, July 3, and breaking it down in the wee hours of Thursday, July 4. Then, it’s on to Wolfeboro later that morning to prepare for the fireworks show over Wolfeboro Bay at dusk on the Fourth. After breaking down that display, the crew has a few hours of rest before setting up the show at L.W. Packard Field in Ashland where that town’s fireworks display takes place at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, July 5.

The other show St. Clair’s crew puts on is the fireworks display for Gilford’s Old Home Day celebration, this year taking place on Saturday, Aug. 24.

St. Clair especially enjoys the Wolfeboro and Gilford shows because they are still able to shoot up to eight-inch shells at those events. Recent rules put in place the State Fire Marshal’s Office have limited the size of other displays because of the proximity of the crowds to the staging area.

While those rules limit Ashland’s display to six-inch shells, St. Clair still counts Ashland among his favorite venues because that town’s celebration has an old-fashioned flavor that a couple of years ago earned his show a vote as the most-popular fireworks display in the state. St. Clair finds that especially gratifying since his shows are hand-fired, as opposed to computer-controlled.

“A lot of people can’t believe that we use flairs,” St. Clair said, explaining that most modern pyrotechnists have never even heard of doing a show that way.

He explained that the computer-controlled displays that are so popular today are setups on trailers that are fixed to the ground, and the technician fires the shells by pressing a button on a console — often a program synchronized to music. In contrast, the shows that St. Clair has been putting on since he was an apprentice pyrotechnist involve building racks in which the charges are lashed together; rigging a series of pipes for firing the shots; or creating set pieces like flags or battleships.

His favorite setups are holes dug into beach sand. “There’s more leeway with those,” he said.

The latter explains his attraction of Weirs Beach; that and the fact that St. Clair got his start there.

As a teenager, St. Clair spent as much time as he could at Weirs Beach and fireworks were a big part of that experience. At that time, the beach was larger, extending right up to the boardwalk, so the crowd could look down from the boardwalk and watch the fireworks crew at work.

“Growing up, being exposed to fireworks, I happened to ask a gentleman that was on the beach if he needed some help with the fireworks, and he asked me what my experience was at digging holes,” St. Clair said. “That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. I’ve been with [Atlas Advanced Pyrotechnics] since 1969.”

He continued, “Atlas is a good company to work for, although I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing it. I’ve watched people come and go, and there are a lot of good people I worked under.”

One of those was the late Roger Mayer, who was a member of the Laconia Fire Department. “He came on the job while I was training, and I worked under him for a long time. He taught me a lot about the profession, and a lot about safety.”

Because of that training and his long history with fireworks, St. Clair has some very strong opinions about safety and the recent rule changes that have been imposed on fireworks in the name of safety. “The ‘experts’ very rarely talk to people in the field,” St. Clair said. “Public safety is and should be the biggest concern of a professional pyrotechnic, as it is with the Fire Marshal’s Office. I just disagree with some of the rules they’ve put in place in the last several years. Those rules have caused the shows at The Weirs and Ashland to be restricted to much smaller shells — and I find that interesting, given the whole direction of Class C fireworks in sales to the public.”

Professional fireworks that are restricted to those licensed to handle them are classified as “B” while Class C fireworks are smaller and are considered safe for the public. Rules governing Class C fireworks have been broadened in recent years, allowing members of the public who meet certain age restrictions to buy larger firecrackers and rockets that once were banned.

“Some of those Class C fireworks can give good competition to those professional shows limited to three-inch shells,” St. Clair said.

“I don’t take Class B fireworks lightly,” he added; “it’s a serious occupation. There’s no such thing as injury-free fireworks, whether using computers or flairs. But even Class C fireworks should be handled with tender, loving care.”

He also has reservations about barge shows. “As the rules change and size becomes an issue, many crews have moved to barges,” St. Clair said. When asked whether that would be more dangerous to those firing the shells, St. Clair said, “I won’t comment on that … but I won’t do barge shows.”

St. Clair also noted that, when he started out, pyrotechnists had to serve as apprentices for two years before being certified. Now the technicians must take a written test and work with a company until the firm signs off on them, “and that’s that”. Asked whether that is a change for the better, St. Clair merely shrugged his shoulders.

Then there is the requirement that the local fire department must have a detail on hand from the time the fireworks are brought in until the show is over. “I was told to stay out of that fight,” St. Clair said, “but I do question the need for it.” He said that, while it makes sense to have a crew on hand during the show, he doesn’t understand why they need to be there from the time of delivery. “If that’s such an issue, why not have a paid escort and shut down the highways while they’re being transported?”

The new rules are not the only problems for fireworks displays, St. Clair said, noting that shows such as Wolfeboro’s cost around $10,000. “It’s hard for the Weirs Action Committee to raise the money to do weekly fireworks shows,” he said. “People don’t donate like they used to.”

Additionally, the cost of insurance and permits continues to rise.

Despite all those negatives, St. Clair is bullish on fireworks, saying people love to hear the explosions. “Color is always nice,” he said, “but the explosions get the people on their feet, especially during the grand finale. They still love the loud noise.”

So what is involved in a fireworks display?

“Hundreds of shells,” St. Clair said, explaining that they are labeled so the shooter will know what color they will be. “We like to mix things up by sizes.”

While Atlas used to make its own shells at the Jaffrey headquarters, now most of the shells come from overseas: China, England, Italy. “But my favorite shells are American-made,” St. Clair said.

While he has done one show alone — in Pittsfield a number of years ago — St. Clair said he typically has a crew of six. “When I did that show alone, the pressure was extreme,” he noted.

While places like Hampton Beach still have the large shows that St. Clair remembers seeing when he was younger, he said, “I recommend that people go to the local shows and support them. In Ashland, people arrive during the afternoon to get a good seat, and they stay there. There is entertainment until the fireworks begin; things are going on all the time.”

There are plenty of opportunities to see fireworks over the Fourth of July and all through the summer in the Lakes Region. There is sure to be a show near you. 

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