The plans for Wamego’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show begin on July
5. “The day after we start thinking about what will make the show more effective,” said Neil Ebert, a member of the volunteer group that puts on the display. “We start in earnest around March.”
The process involves deciding which fireworks to order, creating a detailed plan for when and where each of them will be, and labeling the fireworks to make sure they get placed in their allotted spots.
The group calls itself the Pyro Crew, and its members spend hundreds of combined hours to prepare for the display each year. Chris Hupe, one of the leaders, said their passion is bolstered by the community support. That’s what keeps them going, working to create a perfect show for the people of Wamego and others who come to see the spectacle.
“You can just try to make them as good as you can because it matters to a lot of people,” Hupe said.
The scope of the show itself begins with the variety of fireworks and other equipment. Lanny Bosse, another volunteer with the Pyro Crew, said the plans include everything from large mortars that launch into the sky to small mines that create a glow on the ground.
The volunteers also build from scratch the show’s launching equipment, such as wooden structures lined with 3-inch tubes to launch the large mortar shells.
They create specialized sets of equipment each year to make every show different.
“There’s a lot of time and labor to make the equipment,” Bosse said. “But it’s an economical way for the show to be put on.”
The half-hour show includes about 2,000 explosive “events,’ Hupe said, some of which are launched by electronic control boards from a distance, while others are hand-lit by members of the group. Hupe said the “hybrid approach” allows some flexibility with the display.
“It opens up a new world of possibilites,” he said. Another resource that allows for a larger scale is the experience of the 13 shooters who put on the show. Three of these shooters are licensed by the state of Kansas to produce professional shows, while 10 of the 13 are certified by Pyrotechnics Guild International.
Someone from PGI comes to Wamego every year to train volunteers on firework show safety, such as how to deal with open flames and how far to stay away from the crowds.
Hupe said this professional knowledge adds a level to the display.
“When you put together that level of experience, you going to get a pretty good show,” he said.
Many of the volunteers have been involved for more than 10 or 15 years.
Ebert, who is a more recent to addition to the crew and joined in 2009, said he got involved because he saw his friend, Hupe, spending so much time on the show and thought he could help. However, he said something about the community of Wamego draws people to volunteer again and again.
“Wamego is a community of net givers,” Ebert said. “It binds us all together that we’re helping a lot of families.”
Bosse agreed the community has a certain quality that moves major events like the fireworks show forward.
“I think it’s something unique to Wamego,” he said. “If they set their mind to something, you get a lot of volunteers.”
And the effort is appreciated by the crowd, Hupe said.
“Unless you’re a rock star, this is as close as you get to that,” he said. “It’s pretty rewarding, hearing the cheering after the show.”
That kind of reaction is elicited by the show’s signature salutes, which have earned the display’s nickname “the non-stop finale.”
“People like the boom,” Hupe said.
But more than that, people have memories associated with the spectacle they see. Bosse said it becomes a destination for families, reunions and other groups.
Ebert said the entire atmosphere, with the carnival and other events of the day, adds to the memorable experience.
“People say it reminds them of Norman Rockwell or Mayberry,” Ebert said. “It’s that small-town sentiment.”
If people didn’t respond so strongly, Hupe said, it might not be worth the time. But because of the community support, they continue to work hard to create the best show they can.
“The support of the people, people who have nothing to gain, that’s what drives us,” he said.