Pyros Compete for Brightest Booms and Blasts
It’s like the Olympics for handcrafted fireworks, Tom Sklebar explained as he steered his ATV across Morningside Park at Cam-Plex Friday where a small team of volunteers were busy burying mortars in the muddy ground across from the grandstands. Clusters of heavy-duty plastic pipes in varying lengths and dimensions stuck out of the ground like organ pipes, each strategically placed for launching capacity and choreography. Later, they will be blasting thousands of fireworks into the sky for the first of four public shows by Pyrotechnics Guild International (PGI).
This week, Sklebar and about 700 of his PGI peers have convened in Gillette from all over the nation and world to compete for bragging rights, while entertaining the local crowds and celebrating the group’s 50th anniversary.
The annual August conference is the group’s flagship event and an opportunity for the pyros to show off, share information, and teach others what they know. Dubbed the “most fun you can have in a week with fireworks,” the annual event draws a big crowd of amateur and skilled pyrotechnic hobbyists with public displays and judged competitions between members. There’s even a junior pyro class for kids 8 to 18, who put on their own display. Along with the competitions, they also have workshops to share knowledge and skills, which in a specialized craft such as this one, is a big draw.
“The group really runs the gamut,” Sklebar said, from people who make the fireworks, put together the public displays, collect firework art, or just enjoy watching the shows. Anyone can join or attend the conference, Sklebar said, as long as they sign up and pay the membership dues. Their mission is to share knowledge and build fireworks safely.
As the group’s media liaison, Sklebar has already given many tours in the couple days he’s been at Cam-Plex, and he good-naturedly fielded questions while pointing out the highlights. Boxes of fireworks were stacked on tables and in piles on the ground next to the mortars, which in total will add up to be around 3,000 shells in various sizes and styles, just for one show. The fireworks for the public shows have been commercially purchased, mainly from China and Japan.
As one who designs and builds his own fireworks, Sklebar has a unique perspective in the arduous detail, skill, and manpower that goes into making a single shell, not to mention the timing and art involved in putting together a well-timed show. Some of these guys have spent weeks and months making their fireworks, in what Sklebar describes as a laborious, detail-oriented process that PGI member Ned Gorski attempted to explain.
Just learning the pyrotech lingo is difficult enough, let alone understanding how the various pieces all fit together in their intricate shells. Gorski rattled off a list of components that go into making his rocket-size “Cap Bomb,” from built-in time fuses, chemical combinations to create the colored stars, to the weighty comet tail that helps direct the rocket more than 1,000 feet in the air.
“There’s complexities on complexities on complexities,” he said. Every effect or pattern is synchronously built into the design, whether it be a falling comet, shooting star, or cascading parasol.
The “Cap Bomb” is a Gorski original, making him somewhat of a legend in pyrotechnic circles.
He’s been at this for a while, he noted, roughly 38 years after becoming intrigued with the firework displays in Disney movies. Just watching the colorful, sparkly tendrils showering down over the fabled castle at the start of a show literally sparked his imagination and curiosity. How on earth do people make those things, he wondered? When he took it upon himself to figure it out, there was no Google or real internet, so the Cincinnati native went to a bookstore and scoured the shelves for information, finding a black-and-white spiral bound copy of the “Best of American Fireworks News” containing chapters of complicated-looking diagrams with hand-drawn steps and instructions.
As Gorski pointed out, it’s easy not to get bored with this hobby. The former contractor appreciates the details and intricacies and “pounding things.” He’s got a lot of years invested in the art and even went to Thailand to study with the masters. There’s a lot of math involved, he said, and chemistry.
Sklebar agreed. That’s part of the fun. He’s been involved with the guild for about as long as Gorski and is among the small handful of skilled guys who are allowed to build shells on site for the performance.
He pointed to a blue-and-white striped tent off in the distance in a field east of the arena. Tarps on the side prevent anyone from seeing in and only guys with his certification are allowed entrance. Right now, they’re working on a 36-inch shell that weighs about 360 pounds for the Friday night show.
“That will be a good one,” he said with a smile, shutting off his ATV to let a semi-trailer roll past on the gravel. That’s the first of many such trailers full of fireworks that will be pulling in throughout the course of the day.
They’ve got a big week ahead of them, and they’re hoping that plenty of people will come out to the Cam-Plex to check it and learn more about the craft of pyrotechnics.
“It’s pretty addicting,” he said, “and a lot of fun.”