Lighting up the July sky is expert's dream job

A pyrotechnician bypasses computerized detonators and enjoys the freedom to create a hand-lit tribute to independence.

Published July 4, 2006

For Ron Richardson, nothing beats the adrenaline thrill of lighting the fuse of a 6-inch mortar rocket and watching it race skyward until it explodes into a shower of shimmering, brilliant color. It's noisy and hot, and more than just a bit crazy - all of which is precisely why Richardson enjoys it so much.

At dusk this evening, Richardson and his pyrotechnic team will be at the ready for the go-ahead to send several hundred rockets and mortars into the dark patch of sky above Weeki Wachee Springs.

Expect it to be loud and proud.

"We're bringing some really great stuff this year," said Richardson, 42 a licensed pyrotechnician employed by Pyrotechnico, a Pennsylvania company that specializes in outdoor fireworks shows. "It's going to be a lot bigger and a lot better than last year's show."

Though small in comparison to some of the more elaborate Fourth of July displays he has created in his five years as a shooter, Richardson, who lives in Webster, says the Weeki Wachee show, sponsored by Sun Toyota of New Port Richey, has become one of his favorite jobs. Rather than relying on computerized detonators, which have become the norm in the industry, the entire cache of fireworks - about 900 shells by his estimation - will be "hand lit," allowing him to pick and choose the pace and sequence of the show.

"We call it a shooter's dream," Richardson said. "Depending on how you set it up, you have the freedom to mix things up and change stuff around at the last second. If you want a big blast at the beginning you can do that, or you can stretch it out and save it to the end."

To ignite the rockets, Richards uses a road flare, which enables him to stay a safe distance from the projectile while closely monitoring its ignition progress. Faster flurries of fireworks involve help from other crew members who are stationed at various areas around the staging area.

A 25-minute blast such as the one planned tonight at Weeki Wachee Springs typically takes upward of six hours to set up. Once onsite, Richardson and his crew, which includes longtime friends Tim and Cheryl Chansler and Danny Fowler, begin a safety sweep of the area, which includes setting up fire extinguishers around every blast point. The fireworks, which range in size from 3 to 6 inches, include popular configurations such as chrysanthemums, roundels, star shells and serpentine shells. Once the shells are loaded into special racks, they are set up in fireproof decks and covered with plastic to protect them from moisture.

As a part-time pyrotechnician, Richardson performs about 15 fireworks shoots each year. Yet despite the dangers of working with ordnance with the explosive capability of several sticks of dynamite, neither he nor anyone on his crew has ever been injured.

"When you read about bad accidents and people getting hurt or killed, it's usually because either someone wasn't paying attention or there weren't proper safety measures being done," he said. "Everything we do is checked and double-checked. I wouldn't do it any other way."

Richardson's interest in pyrotechnics dates back about 10 years when he signed on to tote fireworks and equipment at a show for residents of a lake community in North Carolina. Though he was not licensed to handle the explosives, he paid close attention to the crew as they set up the fireworks.

"I was mesmerized by the technique and timing that goes into it," Richardson said. "I just got hooked on it."

Two years later, he attended classes sponsored by Pyrotechnico and earned the requisite federal explosives license needed to become a professional pyrotechnician. Since then he has endeavored to fine-tune his skills into what he considers an art.

"The one thing you want to avoid is dead sky," Richardson said.

Using rockets of varying height, color and size, he enjoys creating a vivid choreography in the sky. He will send up a series of ring shells (fireworks that explode in symmetrical rings) and then fill the voids with brightly colored florets. Other tricks include creating a fountain-like effect using rockets of varying heights and sizes. Richardson's personal favorite, however, is the titanium salute, a solitary shell that sails 300 yards up and produces a deafening boom that is loud enough to rattle dishes in a cupboard two blocks away.

The work, though fun, is exhausting, he said. "It really takes a lot out of you. You're running around nonstop for 30 minutes, and the adrenaline's going all the time. Once it's over, I have to calm myself down in order to relax."

Although Richardson rarely gets to see the faces of the spectators who come to watch his work, he is warmed by the enthusiastic response from the crowds after the shows.

"You never forget that people come from all over the place to watch your fireworks," he said. "That's why you want to put in everything you've got into it. You want them to remember it."