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Behind the scenes: Traverse City's 4th of July fireworks

Nikki Lalonde, left, and Marie Drogt of Great Lakes Fireworks drop and wire shells on a barge at the Discovery Pier in Traverse City as they prepare for Thursday’s Fourth of July fireworks over West Grand Traverse Bay.
Jan-Michael Stump
/
Traverse City Record-Eagle
Nikki Lalonde, left, and Marie Drogt of Great Lakes Fireworks drop and wire shells on a barge at the Discovery Pier in Traverse City as they prepare for Thursday’s Fourth of July fireworks over West Grand Traverse Bay.

As people across the United States head to Independence Day fireworks, a lot of activity behind the scenes is making sure there are plenty of them – especially in Traverse City.

Bruce Tyree and Jim Jean are brothers-in-law who having been putting on fireworks shows for years. Tyree is the owner of Great Lakes Fireworks, a company he calls one of the most prominent in the country.

And this week, they’re in Traverse City putting on two shows: one for Independence Day and one for the end of the National Cherry Festival on Saturday.

“It takes about an hour for every minute of show time to plan out the fireworks,” Tyree said. “So for (Thursday’s) 27-minute show, well, you can do the math.

“For this show there are 1,820 pyrotechnic items that will be delivering over 2,500 shots.”

Coordinating shows with music used to mean working on a spreadsheet and pressing the right buttons at the right time. Now, there’s software to make it easier.

“Then it’s like three days for the guys to pull everything and get it in the boxes,” he said. “So they got all the shells that I picked and are wiring all the devices.

“And then it takes like three days to set it all up – all for 30 minutes.”

Jean said any pyrotechnics experts in the audience will be watching for the craft, but most people just like the lights and sounds. “The amount of time and planning it takes to put on a fireworks show is something a lot of people don’t know about,” he said.

The shows on Thursday and Saturday will have shells, some as many as 8 inches in diameter, launching from four connected barges in the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay.

“The best part is after the finale,” Jean said. “When the crowd roars, you feel like a rock star.”

Tyree agreed, and said that moment is what makes the hard work of the job worth it.

Great Lakes Fireworks wasn’t always a formal company. It all started as a neighborhood Fourth of July show.

“He (Jean) would get fireworks from the street, bring them up to this little community in Saint Helen,” Tyree said. “And for the Fourth of July, we put on this little firework show.”

Over time, the show grew and people donated to purchase the fireworks, but he said the police asked them to get a license to keep going. And they did, after asking around larger fireworks show producers in the area.

“We found out all the procedures, how to get the permitting, how to get the training,” Tyree said. “And we did it all just so that we could do this little show in this little community just for fun.”

After learning to source their fireworks, providing shows for more and more events and even competing in international fireworks competitions, he finally decided it was a full-time job in 2004.

“We have 150 people that shoot shows for us,” Tyree said. “We do about 175 shows per year.”

The next step? Hosting their own international fireworks competition in Traverse City for the second year.

For anyone planning to conduct their own holiday fireworks, Tyree recommended skipping them. But, if you do, make sure to keep water nearby, light them from a 5-gallon bucket with some sand in the bottom and make sure the people around you know what’s happening.

“People don’t think about safety, especially with consumer-grade stuff,” Jean said. “But it can be dangerous.”

Lauren Rice is a newsroom intern for WCMU based at the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
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