Story and photos by Dustin Senger
“It’s going to be a great night for a show,” said Kip Petersen, after planting colorful chrysanthemums and peonies Sunday on a freshly-mowed hill overlooking Ironhorse Park.
Petersen had spent three days positioning numerous types of fireworks, which typically carry the names of the flowers and trees their colors and patterns resemble. His upcoming aerial display would culminate this year’s “Fourth on the Third” Independence Day celebration at Fort Carson.
“We had a phenomenal show last year and we’re going to have a wonderful show this year,” said Petersen, a Colorado-licensed pyrotechnician who has pieced together commercial fireworks presentations for more than 15 years, many of them at Fort Carson.
Mike Schauf, a pyrotechnician and former Mountain Post Soldier, helped him out this year by unloading and arranging the black- and flash-powder explosives. Schauf worked from sunrise to after midnight the first day.
“Each mortar has a proper placement and each shell is set to the second,” said Petersen, while connecting about 2,200 feet of low-voltage wires and cables to a firing system board. He describes the setup as meticulous and time-consuming.
Petersen and Schauf positioned roughly 1,000 high-density polyethylene mortar tubes, between 2.5-6 inches in diameter. Crates packed with the tubes were aligned on a flatbed semitrailer and staggered almost 100 feet across the field. The fireworks stood vertical to prevent falling debris from straying too far.
A dirt trench 4 feet long, 10 inches wide had a row of 10 massive 8-inch tubes, which require a wrench to uproot them after they’re ignited, said Petersen. He also expected to extinguish the usual 2- or 3-foot spot fires with shovels and fire extinguishers. A nearby fire hydrant had a hose attached, just in case.
Wildland concerns swelled ahead of the holiday weekend. The Bureau of Land Management declared “very high fire danger levels” along the Rocky Mountain Front Range and initiated Stage 2 fire restrictions Saturday morning, thereby banning open burning, outdoor smoking and private fireworks.
However, the Fort Carson fireworks show presents “no risk,” said Petersen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in wildland fire management 20 years ago and fought woodland flames in several states for more than a decade.
“There’s always a risk with everything,” said Megan Cornell, Fort Carson’s lead fire inspector for the evening show. “The fire department will be everywhere — throughout Ironhorse Park. We’ll be looking for spot fires.”
Concerns of spot fires eased Saturday evening, as scattered showers and hail patted the dry, dusty ground.
A short-lived but heavy downpour soaked the post Sunday evening, causing an emerging crowd to run for shelter. On the adjacent hill 1,000 feet away, Petersen and Schauf covered their fireworks in plastic and foil.
At 9:15 p.m., thousands of fireworks launched about 300-800 feet over Ironhorse Park. Choreographed firing commands matched the colorful explosions to the rhythms of music.
Following the show, a Fort Carson fire inspector immediately reported to the launching site, where he confirmed no ongoing fires. The flames from falling debris quickly extinguished in the wet terrain.
“Now it’s time to get to work,” said Petersen, retrieving his pickup. While waves of spectators started walking home and driving off, the pyrotechnicians began inspecting each tube to ensure they had properly discharge.