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Fireworks light up night

7/6/2014

By ELIZABETH GOLDEN

By ELIZABETH GOLDEN

egolden@dailynews.net

Tom Meiers has 20 scrapbooks -- one for every year of the Wild West Festival. He has seen it all, from its inception to organizing the same show 20 years later, only much bigger.

Meiers is in charge of all aspects of fireworks production at the Wild West Festival, and is the only remaining founding member on the committee.

"We started the festival 20 years ago because no one was here on the Fourth of July," he said. "The city of Hays needed a celebration for the city of Hays. We decided on fireworks, but how do you pay for it? Well, you do the concerts. We started from scratch."

Meiers, along with four others, were instrumental from the beginning. The fireworks committee since has grown to more than 40 members.

"I wanted to do something we could brag about and show everyone what Hays is really about," Meiers said. "The idea was to support the fireworks with the concerts and do it around the Fourth of July date."

The fireworks show costs an average of $1,000 per minute. Friday's show lasted just less than 20 minutes.

"The funding comes from the $15 ticket," Meiers said. "The idea was you buy a ticket, go to the concerts, then we can fund this with the money we make from the concerts. All the money from this festival goes back into the city somehow."

The entire town makes money, Meiers said, especially the restaurants and hotels.

Organization of the fireworks show requires coordination from the WWF committee as well as the city and Fort Hays State University. U.S. Highway 183 Bypass is shut down to accommodate approximately 25,000 people lining the dike.

The Hays police department and fire department stand by to ensure safety.

"We work with the fireworks company, making sure everyone is safe and conditions are appropriate," said Ryan Hagans with Hays Fire Deptartment. "Last year we had to wet down the grounds; this year we were fortunate enough to have rain. But, we still have fire trucks surrounding the area to put out small grass fires."

Preparation for the fireworks show takes two to three day. Approximately 1,700 tubes are set up on the south side of the Gross Memorial Coliseum at FHSU. Each tube contains an explosive shell hooked up to a wire. The wires individually are connected to a master control board.

"Some of the shells are the size of a basketball," Meiers said. "We are not shooting regular fireworks; we are shooting very explosive shells and dealing with some heavy-duty dynamite."

Along with size, each shell is made differently.

"The shells come in different colors," Meiers said, "some explode immediately, some will trail out. All shells do different things when they're up in the air."

Meiers said the next three to four weeks will be filled with picking up debris.

"When the fireworks blow up, they go into the air, but the fragments are all over the place," Meiers said. "People don't realize this isn't something we just bring in. You need the right people, the right company, the right explosives. It's a major undertaking. While everyone over there is having a good time, we're cleaning up the mess."

Billy Saffer, Olathe, has been involved in the fireworks business for 11 years, and he was responsible for controlling this year's show.

"The Hays show is pretty straight forward," he said. "It just requires a good knowledge of fireworks and safety. I just plug them into a box with a bunch of switches. Oh and then I get to blow stuff up, of course."

Saffer's biggest concern was the wind.

"The big deal with the wind is how far it will carry the burning embers if it's too dry out," he said. "When it's real windy like this, a lot of the effects rely on not having this much wind."

Although windy in the early afternoon, Saffer said the show went smoothly.

"We can brag about having the biggest show in western Kansas," Meiers said.

"Our show is three times bigger than the show in Salina. We get the gratification that we can put on a top-quality exceptional fireworks show."