Behind a July Fourth fireworks display

By Brian Hurlbut EBS Contributor

Here we are, just a short time away from the Fourth of July, one of the biggest celebrations of the year.

In Big Sky, the party that the Arts Council has put on for more than 15 years has swelled to become our largest event—last year close to 5,000 people gathered in the Town Center to listen to music and watch one of the best fireworks displays in Montana.

Of course, July Fourth is synonymous with fireworks, and a big part of my job is to make sure the show in Big Sky goes off without a hitch.

Planning for a show of this caliber starts several months before the event. First, I secure a contract from Big Sky Fireworks, an operation based in Helena that put on 63 displays last year on July Fourth alone, in communities throughout Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

Big Sky pro ski patrollers and licensed blasters Ross Titilah (at left) and Rob Wood prep behind the scenes for the Big Sky July Fourth fireworks display.

Big Sky pro ski patrollers and licensed blasters Ross Titilah (at left) and Rob Wood prep behind the scenes for the Big Sky July Fourth fireworks display.

I tell them how much we have to spend, and they design a show to our budget.

For comparison, shows in Butte, Helena and Bozeman are nearly double the amount we spend in Big Sky.

This year our budget is $13,500, about $1,000 more than last year. While the Arts Council writes the check, this funding comes directly from the Big Sky Resort Area District tax—if the board didn’t approve our request, this show might not happen, and we’re grateful for their support.

Selecting a location to blast off 755 shells—yes, that’s the exact number—in a crowded area like the Town Center is another challenge.

From 2010 until 2014_we set up on Town Center Drive between East Slope Outdoors and Roxy’s Market, but this area is now developed and provides critical access during busy events. Now, we set up on Simkins Drive between Golden Stone Lane and Pheasant Tail Lane. It’s actually a better location being closer to the park and providing a better viewing angle directly over the stage.

This year, Big Sky Fireworks has a new, state-of-the-art firing system and an improved rack that allows for more creativity in show design, which is specific for each community.

On the day of the show, we close the road and the crew starts staging the spectacle. Shells ranging from 3 to 8 inches are lined up. Throughout the day I check in with the crew several times to ensure it’s progressing as planned.

Who actually fires the show? In Big Sky, the crew is headed up by Ross Titilah and Rob Wood, both longtime Big Sky Resort pro ski patrollers during the winter, and certified explosive experts. As blastoff approaches—usually around 10:15 p.m.—I’m in constant communication with Titilah and Wood.

Having done this for five years, we have it dialed. We typically time the first shell during the “bombs bursting in air” part of the Star-Spangled Banner. It helps when you have a singer like Jeni Fleming, a member of The Tiny Band who will perform this year and who can belt out our national anthem as well as anyone.

While most people are watching the shells explode in the sky, I’m sweating the details, hoping nothing goes wrong and nobody gets hurt. I rarely even watch most of the show, and post up backstage making sure the band is taken care of. They take a short break during the display but get right back on stage to close the night with more music.

For me, the night is fun in its own way. I’m working on July Fourth—it’s a 14-hour day—so it’s hard to relax during the fireworks. Do I enjoy it? Of course. I think I have the best job around.

But it’s not about me. If we put on a great show people will remember it forever, and that’s worth celebrating.

Brian Hurlbut is the author of the “Insider’s Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks” and “Montana: Skiing the Last Best Place.” His writing has appeared in the Montana Quarterly, Montana Magazine, Big Sky Journal, Mountain Outlaw, and Western Art and Architecture, among others. He lives in Big Sky, Mont., with his wife and two