Pyrotechnics Guild Lights Up Gillette

Aug 30, 2019

Pyrotechnics Guild International is a group for people who love fireworks. The organization is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and brought its yearly meet up to Gillette this month. The pyrotechnicians brought some of the biggest fireworks the city has ever seen. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler has more from Gillette's week of fireworks.

When the Pyrotechnics Guild International (PGI) brings its annual convention to town, the host cities can always expect a good show.

But this year, PGI's convention in Gillette promised big fireworks to celebrate its 50th anniversary…and they delivered.

PGI is the trade organization for professionals and hobbyists who sell, make or just really like fireworks. President Paul Smith said the group wanted to make something special to celebrate its birthday: a 36-inch-shell firework

"A 12-inch-shell looks like a basketball that you're going to launch up there. A 36-inch-shell looks like a beach ball that's three feet across. This thing is going to weigh 300 to 400 pounds," Smith said

The firework had to be launched about a half mile from the crowds gathered at Gillette's Cam-plex. Tom Sklebar with PGI said the big shell was filled with smaller fireworks.

"When it breaks open the comets will all stream out and as they all burn down then all of sudden a little color burst of stars will appear. At about the same time, the 16 four-inch shells inside will also go off all in different colors in the center of the shell," Sklebar said.

Before lighting it off, the crowd sang the organization a round of "Happy Birthday." Then, those in attendance-and the people sitting miles away -saw the special firework fill up the whole sky.

But the 36-inch-shell wasn't the only highlight of the night or even the week. The convention hosted several public firework shows from different professional display companies. Some shows were choreographed to music.

There were also competitions and some of its members brought homemade fireworks to compete each other in a variety of categories.

Smith said making fireworks and showing them off is why PGI was created in the first place

"What they wanted to do is set up some means of guys shooting a shell and then saying my shell is better than yours. And, well, that gets in to judging and becomes a competition and that's what started it off," he said.

Crowds watch the Pyrotechnics Guild International public displays at the Cam-plex grounds on Friday, Friday, August 16, 2019.
Credit Catherine Wheeler

PGI public displays are very different than what you might see at a local Fourth of July firework show: they're grand. The shows have ground displays and fireworks that just make big booms llike bombs with no visual effects, Smith said.

"That also provides you with the ability to create levels to have a ground level, have something at a medium level and something higher and then have things at all three levels going off at once. So it creates a fuller, broader spectrum that they try to do in public displays but sometimes the venue or the situation just doesn't allow for it," he said.

Many of the members, like Richard Sebastian, have been messing around fireworks since they were a kid.

"When you're ten years old, you get firecrackers, then a smoke bomb, then bottle rockets, and it just escalates up from there," he said.

Sebastian, a hobbyist based in Tampa, Florida, is learning everything he ever wanted to know about fireworks.

"I want to know how it's put together, what makes it go boom? Why does it look like this and why doesn't that one look like this? And this is where you learn it," he said.

"We built a five-inch-shell last year and shot it and that's the first time I ever did anything like that. So I've been doing this for 40 years and the first time I've ever built a shell."

Despite the large membership, PGI is like a family. Sebastian said the guild has a memorial firework show every year to honor those they've lost, complete with a 21-gun salute.

"In the past three shows that I've been to people have been cremated, and they'll put some of their ashes in a shell and send it up. And that's what they wanted. This is their life, this is what they do. This how serious people are about this," he said.

As somebody who watched a week of these shows, I can honestly say a regular firework show will never be the same again.