To light up Durango’s Monday night sky, firefighters put in about 100 hours of necessary prep work to be sure 642 shells were ready for 20 minutes of glory above Greenmount Cemetery.
“Who wouldn’t want to do this?”said Rick Irwin, a volunteer with Durango Fire Protection District.
Irwin was one of a few firefighters hand-wiring shells with an electric match Monday morning. E-matches are battery-powered, and when a charge runs through them they spit fire and light the fuses of brilliant shells, with descriptions such as peony and palm tree.
Fuses burn at 50 feet a second, and they light three charges within the shell, said Scot Davis, who holds a display operator license to put on the show.
The first charge sends it into the air. The second charge burns slowly and ignites the third charge, which sets off the gunpowder filled with “stars” or metals that give off the crowd-pleasing Fourth of July colors.
“When you hear the cheer come up from the town, everybody up here smiles,” said Fire Marshal Karola Hanks.
For the celebration, the city of Durango and the Business Improvement District paid $10,000 for fireworks. BID pays an additional $1,200 that is set aside to replace equipment and for a firefighters’ fund to assist with injuries.
If the show was done by for-profit contractors, the residents would likely see only $6,000 worth of fireworks, Hanks said.
With the district in charge, “they get more bang for their buck,” Irwin joked.
In addition to setting up pyrotechnics, the district also monitors for spot fires, and an ambulance is parked at the cemetery in case of an accident.
The electronic matches allow firefighters to stay well away from the explosives. They use a firing board to control the timing of when shells will leave their plastic and fiberglass tubes, Davis said. Finale fireworks are lit in groups so they will explode simultaneously, or close to it.
But even using e-matches, this type of show is not without risk.
“There is still a danger factor you just have to be aware of it,” Irwin said.
Although it is infrequent, shells can ignite and smolder in their tubes. In these cases, firefighters cut the electrical wire to the shell and approach in safety gear to drown it. They allow it to sit in water for 30 minutes, Irwin said.
For some shows, including Purgatory at News Year’s, the district will manually light mortars in full safety gear. Firefighters must also stay below the tubes so when gases from shells initially expand fumes travel over their heads.
There have been years when the district considered not putting on a Fourth of July show because of inclement weather, but officials want to give residents a safe alternative to igniting their own fireworks.
In Colorado, fireworks that leave the ground are illegal for residents to light themselves, and people who bring them into the state can face a $50,000 fine, said Davis, the fire district’s community education coordinator.
Confiscated fireworks are incorporated into the show, because it is a safe way to dispose of them, Hanks said.
After the show, about 100 hours of labor faces a Boy Scout troop that volunteers each year to help clean the cemetery and pick up all the singed cardboard scraps.
While the cemetery has served well, the fire district is looking for a new location for the day when the cemetery no longer has room to serve as the staging ground, Hanks said.