By Michael Somerby ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
BIG SKY – Every Fourth of July, hundreds of millions of Americans take to backyards, beaches, parks and swimming pools nationwide to celebrate our independence, culture and unique freedoms.
At nearly 330 million strong, living in environs ranging from alpine to semi-tropical, it’s only natural we celebrate differently, honoring local customs and cuisine.
But Americans share one thing with certainty on the Fourth of July, whether they’re in Honolulu, Boston or anywhere in between: that moment when it’s time to lay out a towel or blanket, look to the night sky, and take in the truly awesome spectacle of a fireworks show.
The people of Big Sky have come to enjoy their very own show, thanks to the work of a dedicated team of paid volunteers. Robert Wood, a co-owner of Blue Raven Properties in Big Sky, has helped put on the fireworks display for nearly 10 years.
Wood’s introduction to fireworks came on the slopes of Lone Mountain, where he worked for Big Sky Resort as a ski patroller.
“I did hundreds of shows up at the resort,” Wood said. “They used to do a show a week.”
His experience transferred easily to the Big Sky Town Center show, particularly when it comes to handling potentially dangerous explosives.
“We had the skills and transitioned into the Fourth of July show,” Wood said. “The fireworks are considered Class C explosives, and with avalanche mitigation at the resort we worked with Class A explosives. Since we already had licenses to work with the Class A, we were already able to do the Class C work. So we just needed the training.”
Big Sky Fireworks, a fireworks purveyor out of Helena, handles everything from training to show planning for Big Sky’s annual Independence Day show, while available funding and the desired show duration determine the design.
The Big Sky show incorporates shells ranging from 3 to 8 inches long, which determines flight height—shells travel approximately 100 feet for every inch of shell. Each shell is contained in its own tube, and each tube is mounted to a rack. Racks are then grouped in banks.
According to Wood, Big Sky’s show contains hundreds of shells.
“For the 3-inch shells, we have five racks of 12 [tubes] per bank, so there will be 60 3-inchers in just one bank. It adds up really quickly.”
The crew works in close harmony with the Big Sky Fire Department, an essential partnership in mitigating wildfire risk in a notoriously fire-prone corner of the nation.
“Big Sky Fire always checks in with us before the show to make sure we don’t need anything,” Wood said. “If it’s really dry, they’ll wet down the grass before the show, and the whole department will set out en masse after the show to look for spot fires and spray things down.”
According to Wood, setting up the show takes about a day. But it’s a labor of love.
“It’s a really neat thing to be able to do because it makes you feel so connected to the town when you’re doing something like shooting off a fireworks show for the kids of Big Sky,” he said. “It’s a great feeling when you pull out your earplugs and you hear the whole town cheering.”