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A behind the scenes look at one of San Antonio’s largest fireworks displays

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Jerry Clayton
Fireworks at Fiesta Texas Theme Park in San Antonio 2022

Massive fireworks displays thrill most everyone as they light up the sky. But have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes to make a spectacular fireworks display happen?

At the end of the evening at Six Flags Fiesta Texas theme park in San Antonio, music blares with choreographed ground level pyrotechnics shooting into the air and up above, colorful fireworks explode and light up the night sky.

Jerry Clayton
Fireworks launched from a cliff overlooking Fiesta Texas

A couple of hours before the show, we were escorted through security to an administrative building in the park. On the top floor in a conference room is Jacob Dell, owner of Magic in the Sky, the company that puts on the display in partnership with the park. He's giving a training session for three young people being brought in as extra hands for the special series of 4th of July fireworks shows.

Dell is a former employee of Fiesta, Texas, and has a lifelong love of fireworks.

“Some of my fondest memories were of my father and his brothers operating local volunteer fire departments annual 4th of July display every year,” he said. “So I've been in love with fireworks since I've been a very young kid.”

His company also owns a fireworks manufacturing facility, one of the few in the U.S. Most of the fireworks, though, come from other countries, mainly China. They also import fireworks from Japan, Portugal, Italy and Spain. Supply chain issues have severely affected the fireworks industry. Dell says 40 to 50 percent of public displays across the country have been canceled this year due to the shortage.

One major shift in fireworks has been in the past five years or so to make them more environmentally friendly. Newer chemical compositions mean less impact to the environment. In essence, the only thing that's coming down from a fireworks display now is water vapor and then cardboard, which is biodegradable,” said Dell.

It also means less impact to parks with ocean animals like SeaWorld, where Dell's company also puts on displays. Dell said newer chemical composition has also led to different colors for fireworks. Some people call it pastel or neon. You have pinks, off-white, type of blues. Yellow is another color that's really become pretty vibrant,” he said.

Jerry Clayton
A 3-inch aerial fireworks shell

Modern fireworks displays are computer controlled, where the sequences are created and loaded into a computer. The computer tells the firing mechanisms when to light the fuses.

It takes us about an hour per minute of show that you will see to choreograph things. For a show like the 360 viewing for 4th of July that extends to almost three or four hours,” said Dell. Several miles of cabling will have to be set up for the special 4th of July program. Personnel will man all the firing stations, and can shut them down in case there is a problem or a safety issue.

We travelled through the park and ended up on top of a cliff overlooking the theme park. There's a small shack about 20 feet away, surrounded by a chain link fence. Inside is a group of what are referred to as pods. “This is a firing rail. Basically, there's 32 sets of terminals,” said Dell as he showed some of the equipment. “Each firework that you see go off in the sky would be wired into the appropriate terminal,” said Dell

Jerry Clayton
Aerial shells loaded and ready for the show

There are groups of black tubes with wiring running into each, and each tube contains a shell that will be launched into the air. For that evening’s display, about 600 shells will be launched. The 4th of July program will have around 6,000 shells.

Inside the reinforced control bunker is where the computer and firing system lives. Wires stretch from the shack to the modules and pass a 24 volt current, which lights the quick burning fuses on each shell. A state licensed operator will sit in the bunker and control the show nearby the firing site.

Jerry Clayton
Jacob Dell, owner of Magic in the Sky

A water truck moves along the brush to water it down. San Antonio fire code requires the area to be wet down with a water truck to help suppress any fires that may start. There are also crews stationed around the park whose job it is to monitor for any fires that may start as a result of the fireworks.

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Jerry Clayton
Water truck wets down brush near the firing area before the show

About an hour later, we were seated, along with several hundred people gathered in the viewing area in the park to watch the show. It goes off without a hitch.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.