By Jessica Stahl
Each Fourth of July, islanders’ eyes turn skyward for our local fireworks displays. What viewers may not realize, however, is the incredible amount of groundwork required for lighting up the night sky.
Thirty-three years ago a man named Dwight Walters founded the Lopez Community Fireworks, an all-volunteer team who collectively pursue pyrotechnics as their art form. In language evoking not only incredible dedication and skill but also the magic of creativity, the present Director of Pyrotechnics Nick Gislason describes his passion for painting fire in the sky.
“I frequently travel for international fireworks competitions and other noteworthy displays, to look for inspiration and ideas that we can mold and transform into what we do here in the San Juan Islands,” said Gislason. “The sky is the canvas, and there are a lot of natural elements—wind, moonlight, the backdrop of the water and the islands—that we are considering when we’re dreaming up what we’d like to paint.”
This Independence Day, LCF is responsible for both the Friday Harbor display and the Lopez Island display. The shows begin, respectively, at 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. This is the fourth year that LCF will be responsible for both displays, though each island funds their own show.
Gislason oversees 15-20 volunteer pyrotechnicians from Lopez, San Juan, and Orcas Island. The volunteers work together all year to create and assemble the fireworks for a one-night show. Said Gislason, “We begin work on July 5th for the following year’s shows, so it’s really an all-year affair, although crunch time becomes the two weeks immediately before the 4th. Then it turns into full-time, dawn-till-dusk for the whole team.”
The LCF’s unique pyrotechnic style has garnered them numerous awards at the Pyrotechnics Guild International Fireworks Competition, and is informed by the Japanese tradition of “Sets.” Artistically, this style of presentation focuses on contrast in time, noise, light and space, and the appreciation of individual effects and nuances. Both the Lopez and Friday Harbor shows will have unique “Sets” of fireworks.
Gislason voiced his appreciation for the Japanese culture around fireworks, and believes there is a similar feeling in the islands. “As an art form, fireworks—hanabi—demands huge respect in Japan, and is always well supported by the entire community. [Here too], people come together to help do their part. I think people really appreciate the artistry aspect of fireworks here.”
At heart, the fireworks shows are made possible by hard work, dedication to the art and community support. “This really is a show ‘of the community, for the community, and we always need more interested, driven people to help us do it all,” said Gislason. “So, anyone reading this article interested to help us put this all together, please reach out!”