“Connor's going to start the whole thing. He's going to start with the twos and go to the threes. Once he gets to the threes, he'll hit the fours,” Chris Albers tells his crew. “Once he's done with the fives, he's going to tell Greg and Tristen they can start lighting.”
The volunteer firefighters circle close to Albers, forming an array of handheld and helmet-mounted flashlights that illuminate the sketch of the mortar tubes set up on the freshly mown grass behind him.
If not for the bright yellow jackets and helmets, the pop, pop, pop of fireworks emanating from across the field might give the scene a suggestion of combat.
“Lighters, if you light one, walk away, and you don't hear it; don't turn around and see where it is. Just leave it,” he says. “Toss your glow stick next to it. That one's done.”
Squelch breaks on the radio and a steady voice from a shoulder mic announces that the traffic on Comanche Street in Kiowa is backed up, but they're getting cars into the fairgrounds as fast as they can.
“Can you hold off for a few minutes?” the voice asks.
Over Albers' shoulder, the sun has set, and the fringes of black storm clouds to the northwest blaze in the afterglow.
Albers and his crew of volunteer firefighters from the Kiowa Fire Protection District began setting up for the 20-minute fireworks show at the Elbert County Fairgrounds at 1 p.m. The crews spent the majority of the afternoon and evening soaking the surrounding fields with loads of water from a 3,500-gallon tinder truck and setting up the 80 mortar tubes and finale cakes for the show.
“This year we've got 12 different sizes of mortars,” Albers said. “We have 410 actual shells we're shooting off, and then we have another 12 multiple-shot firework finale cakes.”
The tubes launching the shells are similar to a military mortar and range from two to five inches in diameter. With all of the electrical connections removed from the fireworks, each shell at the July 4 show will need to be lit manually.
A loader will drop the shell into the tube with the fuse sticking out of the top, which is lit by a second firefighter with a fusee (road flare).
Tubes are reloaded throughout the performance until nearly all the shells are gone. Near the end of the show the 12 finale cakes are lit, sending showers of sparks and rockets into the air.
With more than 400 fiery projectiles launched, the department was taking no chances and enlisted the assistance of three other districts to mitigate wildfire danger. Six brush trucks from Kiowa, North Central, Elizabeth and Rattlesnake fire districts stood by on a one-mile perimeter to douse burning embers carried by the wind.
As fireworks displays go, the show in Kiowa is considered small by nearly all standards, but the price tag still ran near $6,500, much of which was borne by the firefighters themselves. The cost of larger shows can reach up to $30,000 or more, and shows are often customized or choreographed to music and can take two years or longer to plan.
On the opposite side of the safety and fallout zones, spectators set up folding camping chairs next to rows of vehicles parked in the fields surrounding the fairgrounds or, like the Goddard family, snuggled together in the bed of their pickup, waiting for the show to begin.
The approaching weather is holding off, and with the electrical connections removed from the fireworks, Albers is more concerned about the wind and rain than accidental discharge from static electricity.
He wraps up the briefing by reminding his guys that they are dealing with explosives, and it is OK to be a little nervous.
“Make sure … gloves, eyes, ears, everything's on. We will have misfires; we have in the past. They'll explode right here, so the more skin you've got covered the better,” he says. “If somebody gets really uncomfortable, say something, because you are only going to get yourself hurt or hurt somebody else.”
With that, the seven firefighters nod, some more nervously than others and the group prepares to break up.
“Other than that,” Albers says, “have fun.”