Jay Himlie

Jay Himlie

‘Thump junkies’ light up sky across Peninsula

They’re called thump junkies.

Every Independence Day, pyrotechnists light the fuses, the flares and the Christmas dahlias — those scarlet explosions that take spectators’ breath away.

And in towns across the nation Wednesday night, these fireworks crews went to work, producing not just the visual spectacle, but also that boom-boom-BOOM that makes the Fourth of July.

The fuses are short — about three seconds to the black-powder shell — while the names are flowery: aqua peony with orange pistil, red and green peony, red, white and blue chrysanthemums.

Some are just a ball of colored light, while others have curving arms, octopus-like against the black sky.

These are hand-lighted shows — as opposed to electrically launched — not only more fun for the shooters, but also more fireworks for a smaller budget, said Jay Himlie, orchestrator of Port Angeles’ display that went off from Francis Street Park.

“It’s a kick, you know,” said the Shelton pyrotechnist.

He knows. Himlie has been licensed for a good 14 years now. One of his bigger displays was a 700-shell show at the Muckleshoot Casino one New Year’s Eve.

He could have stretched it out to 20 minutes or so, but the management preferred something much shorter.

It seems people play more games when they’re inside the casino, not outside looking up at the sky. So Himlie dispatched those fireworks in a mere 8½ minutes.

To leave a fireworks audience fully thrilled, it takes a sense of the right interval.

Clients have asked Himlie to stretch a show out to 20 minutes or more, but he can’t bear to leave gaps of dead air between explosions.

So in Port Angeles, the 218 4-inch shells, 145 5-inch and 108 3-inch shells will fill the sky inside of about 15 minutes.

Shooting a show is “pretty incredible,” said John Eissinger, the licensed pyrotechnician behind Port Townsend’s fireworks display.

He and his crew of four — plus 20 who help array the shells on the beach at Fort Worden State Park — use highway flares to light the fuses.

Momentarily, a 5- or 6-inch shell “is going off about a foot from your face,” Eissinger said.

He’s trained by Western Display, the Oregon company that supplies Port Townsend and Port Angeles with fireworks.

The city of Port Townsend paid $10,000 for just about 20 minutes of lofty explosions.

Port Angeles’ $13,000 fireworks display has Wave Broadband as its main sponsor, while Blake Sand & Gravel provides fine-grain sand — can’t have rocks in there, since they could turn into projectiles — and Sunset Do it Best Hardware provides a tractor for moving the sand around the Francis Street Park launch site.

It takes about three days of setup and teardown to make it happen, Himlie said.

He once worked 10 days in a row for 10 hours a day for a total of 45 minutes of fireworks.

“People think we’re a little weird,” he admitted.

“They say, ‘Oh, I love fireworks.’ But when they hear you’re a pyrotechnician, they back away.”

“Every once in awhile, I reserve the right to light the finale,” he added.

In Port Angeles, that means about 45 shells, fuses all chained together and set off in rapid succession.

But Himlie doesn’t get to look up at his handiwork too often. He has to turn away from the shell he’s just lit so the flames leaping out of the tube don’t burn his face.

The good part comes, though, when the booming has subsided — and he can hear the people cheering.

Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5062, or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

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