Anatomy of a fireworks show

Some little boys dream of growing up to be firefighters, working with fire. Others dream of becoming an astronaut, launching rockets into the sky. Steven "Scooter" Scoughton wanted to do both, so he became a fireworks pyrotechnician.

"As a little kid growing up, I went with my mom to Hopkins Park (in DeKalb)," Scoughton said. "I saw the men lighting the fireworks in the woods with a flare, and I knew that I wanted to be one of those guys. Forty years later, I am."

Scoughton is a pyrotechnician with DCV Imports out of Lincoln, Illinois. Scoughton and his group put on between 15 to 17 firework shows each year, including the Fourth of July shows in Cortland, DeKalb, Hinckley, Leland, Maple Park, Sandwich, and Shabbona.

Shows vary according to the budget of the group paying for the display. The price depends on the number and types of fireworks used.

On average, an $8,000 show that lasts 20 minutes will take four to six people over six hours to set up. Securing mortars to the ground takes the longest amount of time. Mortars are made from black high-density PVC pipes placed together in a rack that is secured to fence posts driven into the ground.

"Most people don't know the amount of effort that goes into each show," pyrotechnician Kyle Pumfrey said. "We usually are at the location and are getting things ready before noon. Everybody else just comes with their lawn chairs to sit and watch the show."

Safety is always the most important aspect of a fireworks show. During the show, the pyrotechnicians wear safety gear to protect them from sparks. They wear flame-resistant gloves and coats, long pants, boots, goggles, and helmets. Some even wear masks to protect themselves from the smoke and flames. They also wear ear muffs to mute the noise from the loud and dangerous decibel level of the fireworks.

Each of the pyrotechnicians are licensed through the Department of Natural Resources and the State Fire Marshal. They also take continuing education classes every year.

"Fireworks are very dangerous," pyrotechnician Roger Kahl said. "Only let the professionals do it, and enjoy the show."

At most local shows, pyrotechnicians ignite the fuses on the fireworks manually, instead of using a remote to set them off electronically. Kahl said it gives the pyrotechnicians greater control.

"I personally think that doing it manually adds to the show, since it allows a couple of fireworks to go off at the exact same time," he said.

To set off a firework, pyrotechnicians remove the plastic safety cap from the fuse and stand at least three feet away as they ignite the fuse with a railroad flare. There are two seconds of burn time before the flame reaches the paper match. The match burns into the lift charge, or black gun powder, at the bottom of the shell, creating an explosion that shoots the shell into the sky at about 300 miles per hour.

As the shell ascends, the fuse continues to burn. When it reaches the burst charge, a flammable powder-coated filler such as rice hulls, the shell explodes. The explosion breaks apart the shell's casing and sparks the "stars," small containers of chemical elements and compounds. These chemicals create the colored sparks enjoyed by the crowds below.

The size of the shell determines how high the firework will be in the sky. Every inch in diameter equals about 100 feet: a 3-inch shell will reach about 300 feet, a 4-inch shell, 400 feet. Any shell larger than 6 inches in diameter must be shot electronically.

Shells are purchased per box according to size. Each box has assorted colors and types of fireworks, such as palm trees, which have a tail or stem descending from the main explosion; happy stars, quick flashes that sound like popcorn; brocade fans, which look like waterfalls; and peonies, which explode into a ball shape.

Some fireworks come in cake boxes, cardboard boxes that hold between 36 and 300 small shells that are lit with a single fuse. Cake boxes may shoot the fireworks shoot straight up or angle them to create fireworks that are chained or fanned together, giving a tracer effect back and forth.

The shells used for the show's finale are set farther away from the rest of the shells, covered with aluminum foil to protect them from falling sparks that could set off the finale before the end of the show. Finale shells are slightly different from the other shells used; they come chained together in sets of 10. There are usually over 300 shells used during a finale.

After the finale, the pyrotechnicians wait half an hour for the smoke to clear and for the mortars and shells to cool. Any duds, or non-exploding shells, must be located and collected.

"Our job as pyrotechnicians really is like a ballet," Scoughton said. "Everybody is watching each other constantly, and there's always something happening or going on. At the end, we receive applause for our performance, and we take a bow. Then we wait for things to cool down, drink some Gatorade, and plan the next show."

What gives fireworks their color?

"Each metal in a hot flame environment has a signature color," Dr. Jon Carnahan, the chair of the Northern Illinois University Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said. "The light given off by the firework is characteristic of the elements that were used." Carnahan and Jeremy Benson, an associate at STEM Outreach of NIU, helped to create a list of what chemical elements and compounds make each color firework.

Blue: copper chloride

Green: barium chloride

Orange: calcium chloride

Purple: potassium salts or a mixture of strontium and copper compounds

Bright red: strontium salts such as strontium carbonate

Dark red: lithium salts such as lithium carbonate

White: powders such as magnesium, titanium, and aluminum powders

Yellow: sodium chloride

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