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Wednesday, February 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Front & Center: Pyrotechnician finds reward in the roar of the crowd

By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

Rich Vaughan discovered his passion for fireworks 36 years ago when he and a buddy attended a Fourth of July celebration in Kettle Falls.

Soon afterward, he helped with a show in Wenatchee.

“Basically, I was just grunt labor – building wooden frames and shoveling sand,” Vaughan recalled. “Probably one of the hardest days of work I’ve ever done.

“But that night, when they shot off the shells, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do this for a living.”

Then six years later, an accident almost convinced Vaughan to walk away.

“It happened during the Festival of Four Cultures in Riverfront Park. We were planning a big shindig for my boss, who was retiring, so I invited all the old pyros.”

The show suddenly turned chaotic when one of the sandboxes holding fireworks fell apart, launching a shower of sparks.

A shell took off sideways, bounced in a parking lot full of people, then flew through the window of a nearby building and exploded.

“Afterward, I called the company we were working for and said, ‘I don’t think I want to do this.’

“And the guy said, ‘If you’re afraid of the fireworks, then, yeah, you should quit. But that accident was a one-in-a-million fluke.’ ”

The three decades since have seen a few more memorable incidents, including several brush fires during Northern Quest’s Fourth of July show last month.

Yet Vaughan’s involvement with fireworks has steadily grown.

Last year, he designed and coordinated 165 shows in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon – the territory he oversees for California-based Pyro Spectaculars.

During a recent interview, Vaughan discussed flukes, flares and wedding finales.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Vaughan: On a small farm south of Spokane.

S-R: What was your first job?

Vaughan: Driving a swather and truck on a bluegrass farm when I was 17. During my senior year at Liberty High, I worked half days at Greenwood Cemetery doing groundskeeping.

S-R: Did you have a career in mind?

Vaughan: I wanted to be a smokejumper (a firefighter who parachutes into wildland blazes). But the smokejumper school in Missoula was closed for the summer. Some buddies and I talked about going to Alaska to work on the pipeline, but I let my mom talk me out of that.

S-R: What did you do before getting into pyrotechnics?

Vaughan: I worked 12 years at Burgan’s Furniture, driving a truck, refinishing furniture – just about everything but upholstery.

S-R: Then what?

Vaughan: In 1983, I went to that Fourth of July fireworks show in Kettle Falls put on by George Kiddoo, one of my dad’s hunting buddies. Afterward, George invited me to help him shoot the Wenatchee show. Later, when I told George I wanted to learn more about the business, he said, “You need to get to know John Greenlee,” who handled all the Expo ’74 fireworks.

S-R: How often were fireworks shows staged back then?

Vaughan: Not nearly as often as they are today.

S-R: What was the first display you managed?

Vaughan: Spokane’s 1986 Fourth of July fireworks in Riverfront Park. By that time, I was handling office chores for John, going with him on sales calls and helping with smaller shows.

S-R: Did you need a license?

Vaughan: Not back then. That’s changed, too. I don’t know if there’s another industry now that’s as heavily regulated as we are.

S-R: You mentioned the 1989 accident at the Festival of Four Cultures. What was the fallout?

Vaughan: It messed the building up pretty good. There was a big insurance settlement.

S-R: What did that episode teach you?

Vaughan: Not to let it affect me professionally. Of course, if someone had died, that would have made a huge difference. In 2005, we had a series of accidents – guys getting hurt all over the place – and I was going ballistic.

S-R: Were those accidents caused by carelessness, or more flukes?

Vaughan: The bad part about these things is that you can speculate what happened, but you don’t really know. One of my pyrotechnicians was seriously hurt at Priest River when a 5-inch shell detonated while he was standing next to it. What happened, we just don’t know. But he had to be airlifted out.

S-R: Have you been hurt?

Vaughan: One time. A 5-inch detonated, and I wasted my first and only ambulance ride on a little bitty broken bone in my ankle.

S-R: Is it fair to say this is an inherently dangerous job?

Vaughan: Yes.

S-R: Why do people do it?

Vaughan: What makes it all worthwhile is the roar of the crowd when you’re done.

S-R: How many people work for you?

Vaughan: I have 47 contract workers in charge of shows, and they have helpers.

S-R: How many show managers are women?

Vaughan: Five, including my daughter.

S-R: Are all your show managers licensed?

Vaughan: They’re supposed to be. In Washington, you have to pass tests. Idaho is kind of a gray area. They require a license but don’t give you an avenue to get one.

S-R: What qualities do you look for when hiring?

Vaughan: Mainly why they want to do this. The right reason is someone with a little experience wants to take this to the next level. The wrong reason is they just want to blow crap up.

S-R: What previous work experience has proved useful in your pyrotechnic career?

Vaughan: Probably organizational skills I learned working at Burgan’s. Time management is a big part of this.

S-R: How about good business advice?

Vaughan: John Greenlee told me never to turn down a show. As big as Pyro Spectaculars is – and it’s an international company – we did more shows out of my one-man office over the Fourth of July time frame this year than any other territory in the company – 67 shows from July 1 to July 6. I designed them all, and each one was different to fit the venue and what the customer wanted.

S-R: Give me a for-instance of what goes into designing a show?

Vaughan: We do a lot of weddings – anywhere from three to 10 minutes, depending on the budget. Usually they’re at the end of the evening, when the wedding coordinator wants that Kodak moment – the bride and groom kissing with fireworks in the background.

S-R: What other occasions do you help celebrate?

Vaughan: Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, New Year’s Eve, rodeos, community events. One of our biggest shows of the year – St. Maries’ Paul Bunyan Days – is coming up Sept. 2.

S-R: Can anyone hire you to put on a show?

Vaughan: Yes. Some fireworks only require 15 feet of clearance. But bigger ones need 70 feet of clear space in all directions per inch of shell.

S-R: When were computer-fired displays introduced?

Vaughan: In the late ’80s. Computers can factor in lift times for different shells, so you get better coordination. The latest thing is a wireless, remote firing system. But mostly we still hand-fire shells with a flare.

S-R: Does weather affect your business?

Vaughan: We can shoot in rain. I’ve shot in 20 degrees below zero. Even in snowstorms. What can kill us is wind, because you can’t control where the shells are going to go.

S-R: Do you have a motto?

Vaughan: “10, 10 and 10.” When a show is over, that’s what my guys text me. It means they still have 10 fingers, 10 toes and the show was a “10.”

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Vaughan: The fact that I’m kinda, sorta my own boss.

S-R: What do you like least?

Vaughan: Being away from my family. I’m approaching 200 straight days without a break.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead?

Vaughan: Finding enough guys to handle all the business coming our way.

S-R: How much does the job pay?

Vaughan: You can make decent money shooting a show, but you cannot be in it for the money.

S-R: You’ve probably witnessed more than 1,000 fireworks shows. How’s your hearing?

Vaughan: WHAT? (laugh) Actually, my hearing is OK. But lots of fireworks guys have hearing aids.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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