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Preparing for ... the rocket’s red glare

Technicians set up Santa Clarita fireworks show at Westfield Valencia Town Center

Posted: July 3, 2009 9:47 p.m.
Updated: July 4, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Pyro Spectaculars technicians check their work early Friday morning as they prepare for the Saturday night fireworks show.

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Their backs against the concrete wall of the mall's highest parking structure, four men sprawled or sat cross-legged on the lot, consulting packets of paper in the still-cool Friday morning air and checking information against a laptop.

Meanwhile, several technicians walked through rows of black tubes cradled in wooden frames, the panorama looking like a bad model of a city laid out all across the Westfield Valencia Town Center parking lot.

Thin black wires snaked everywhere.

Technicians hooked up wires and called out numbers to the team with the laptop, and a handful of city workers joined them on the closed-off upper parking structure behind BJ's restaurant. The men had been at work since well before dawn.

From those rooftop tubes in wooden cradles, 2,167 shells will be launched as high as 600 feet into the sky tonight during the city of Santa Clarita-sponsored fireworks show, beginning at 9:15 p.m.

Months of planning
Planning for the fireworks show, dubbed "Let Freedom Ring" and expected to attract about 20,000 people, began in February, when the city invited companies to submit proposals for the Fourth of July show.

"I called every fireworks company in the country," said David Knutson, city arts and events coordinator.

City officials chose Rialto-based Pyro Spectaculars, which has put on the show for the past six years.

Officials with Westfield, the Hyatt Regency, Santa Clarita, the Sheriff's Department and Fire Department held a series of planning meetings during the spring. Knutson and other city workers were trained to deal with emergencies.

The first public notice that fireworks-setup was underway came as signs went up earlier this week warning motorists that some roads would be closed around the mall tonight.

The city spends about $1,000 a minute for the 20-minute-long show, which has a reputation of being among the most extravagant in north Los Angeles County.

A fascination with fireworks
David Palmer, the pyrotechnic operator for Pyro Spectaculars, remembers back to 15 years ago, when he went to his brother's high school graduation and was captivated by the fireworks.

He met one of the technicians, who advised Palmer to give him a call a week before the Fourth of July.

"I did my first show and I got my license two years later," he remembered.

For Knutson, the months and planning and hours of preparation will all be worth it at 9:15 p.m.

"Once that first firework shoots up, you hear that first boom," he said, "it's just like, yes! It's started. You can take a breath."
"It's an adrenaline rush."

Palmer enjoys the crowd.

"The best part of it is the crowd's reaction afterwards," he said.

While it's easier to hear the audience's reaction when he works in major arenas and places like Dodger Stadium, sometimes the roar of applause and cheers can be heard on the roof of the Valencia mall.

Choreographing the show
On the rooftop parking lot Friday morning, eight rows of 50 black tubes each awaited wire connections.
From each of the rows a cable was linked to a central pin board.
It's with that board that Palmer orchestrates the fireworks show to the soundtrack of the patriotic music.
During the show, Palmer uses a probe to connect the shell and the battery, sending the bursting streams of color into the sky.
As if working with explosive powders isn't hard enough, the 20-minute show is choreographed to a patriotic soundtrack that plays on KHTS-AM 1220.
Every firework must burst to a specific beat.
Height attained by the explosives depends on the shell's diameter. Five-inch diameter is the maximum size.

Road closures
For every diameter inch of the shell, the city is required to create a 70-foot fall zone. The required "fall zone" for tonight's show is 350 feet, but the city extends it to 400 feet for safety's sake, Knutson said.

By 8:15 p.m. the street closures begin, with Magic Mountain Parkway shut down from Valencia Boulevard to McBean Parkway. Streets within Westfield Valencia Town Center are also shut down for the show.

The fireworks show starts with a countdown broadcast by KHTS.

As the preparations on the roof begin, the crowds of people start to gather around the fall zone to catch the best seat.

While the show is visible from just about any spot near the mall, the Hyatt Regency, mall parking lots and Whole Foods parking lot generally get a good crowd, Knutson said.

"At the mall, every single parking space is filled," Knutson said.

When the show's over
Once the bombs stop bursting in air, the cleanup begins. It typically takes Knutson and his team into the early morning hours.

The first priority is getting the streets cleared with street sweepers and reopened for the thousands of spectators to drive on, Knutson said.

After the show, the technicians will peek into each of the shells to check whether all the shells went off, Palmer said. If the flashlight's light illuminates the corner of the shell, that means it launched.


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