Fireworks are a key part of Canada Day and Trout Festival events in Flin Flon, but few Flin Flonners know the time and effort that goes into making the show work. The Flin Flon Fireworks Committee are the people who do the deed, boiling dozens of hours of work down into one 45-minute spectacle of light, fury and noise.
In Flin Flon, the Canada Day fireworks are fired from the rocks at the stroke of midnight, high above the western shore of Ross Lake, north of uptown - a similar display happens in Denare Beach 24 hours later, firing from the floating dock at the main beach. A small but dedicated group of volunteers are responsible for making both shows happen.
For the Flin Flon show, work on the site itself starts early on June 30, placing the shells needed for the show. The show itself is mostly controlled by a series of remote detonations, operated by a central board at a table which fires off the shells at the determined time. Early on, the smaller calibre shells are fired by hand - by flares, lit well behind the fireworks themselves, tied to sticks and applied to each fuse when it’s time to blow.
In the middle are “cakes”, smaller but powerful rounds that explode between individual elements of the show, making a transition that most viewers down below won’t be able to notice. The last flourish is the big finale, a group of larger shells positioned further back that produce the biggest "boom"s near the end of the show. The largest ones are buried into sand to ensure they fire off at the right angle - others, like the aquatic fireworks designed to be shot at a shallow angle to bounce off the surface of the lake below, are held in place inside a homemade rack weighed down by sandbags.
“The idea is to try and get a half an hour or a 45-minute show with the finale,” said Brett Jones, one of the fireworks volunteers. Despite being the youngest member of the group, Jones is entrusted with many of the key duties early in the day, overseeing the setup and preparing several of the shells himself. When it comes time to blow things up, Jones is one of a small number of people at the control table ready to work.
“We start with our hand fire and we'll have some cakes and stuff going on to help fill the sky. Then, we have all this five-inch, the three-inch, the four-inch… all this is filler. Then, when the aquatics start, that's when we kick into finale mode.”
The planning hand behind it all is Bryant Frazer, who led organizing for the Canada Day show this year for the fourth time. The design behind which shells fire when, for the most part, is Frazer’s call - when it comes time, it’s his hands on the control board, sitting at a table plastered with papers showing which shell is where and what frequency its firing is controlled by.
“We could do it an easier way if we really wanted to, but I prefer firing them myself rather than having the computer do it,” Frazer said.
“We do have the capabilities to hook it up all into a computer and be all wireless, but I prefer to push the buttons myself.”
Frazer said seeing fireworks displays as a kid inspired him to pursue putting on displays as an adult.
“It was seeing shows when I was a kid. A guy invited me into this,” he said.
“I always wanted to be in this, to do this, to shoot fireworks - the bigger the better.”
Each of the fireworks that aren’t fired off by hand are armed and lit with e-matches, which connect the shells to the board. Each firework has to be individually primed with an e-match the afternoon of the show, each has to be done on-site by hand and, like an old Christmas tree with one burnt-out bulb staying dark, every single e-match and connection must be checked and double-checked before the show to ensure good results.
Most shells are described by their diameter - two-inch, four-inch and the like, with the biggest being the eight-inch shells fired as part of the grand finale. Bigger shells are available, but for a higher price and with tight government regulation to go along with them - larger shells require different rules with customs being shipped into Canada, even requiring anyone who fires them to notify nearby airports and air traffic control.
Hauling the fireworks up to the firing area is a major task by itself. The area is only accessible on a winding, narrow gravel road over rocks, usually used as the gravel trail connecting Flinty’s Boardwalk to North Avenue uptown. Getting the shells in place takes hours, as does preparing them to be fired and testing each individual firework to ensure no mistakes - and that’s only if conditions are perfect. By law, if the wind gets too high at showtime, the fireworks themselves can’t be fired and the show would be postponed for one night. Someone from the group would have to stay up on the rocks for the whole night to watch over the fireworks, ensuring no one comes to steal one or interfere with the setup - which has happened years in the past.
“Normally, we would like to set up the tubes and the grids and all that the night before, but we've had problems with finding things in the lake or strewn out,” said Frazer.
“It’s a lot of work for sure. I’d say we take about 30 hours to do it, at least 30 hours. It’s a lot of work,” said fireworks volunteer Gerald Haygarth.
“A lot of people don’t know what goes into it.”
Local organizations have stepped up to help the Fireworks Committee, providing funds for new equipment - the firing system used by the group, for instance, was donated by the Northern Neighbours Foundation. Individual donors have helped the group raise money through a series of meat draws, held at the Unwinder or held remotely online during the height of the pandemic - it's through those contributions that the shows continue going.
When showtime nears, all the volunteers check the wind and, if suitable, prepare for the final checks. Viewers are already starting to line up, hours early, along the perimeter and on the boardwalk below.
“When it's all done, you'll be amazed at the amount of cheering and the noise that you hear. It's really good,” said Frazer.
“You hear everything.”
Those still at the firing site move their vehicles back along the trail and park out of debris range, while a small number of volunteers - with hearing protection on tightly - conduct the last tests. A test shot is set off.
At midnight sharp, the first shots are fired in anger and the display is underway. The show, barring one or two hand-fired shells that fire a half-beat slower than expected, goes off without a hitch. The volunteers atop the hill cheer their work - and as promised, a loud volley of cheers and car horn honks is heard down below.
The smiles are shortlived up top, as the volunteers then must pick up any loose pieces of material that have fallen to earth and move the remains off the hill - just in time to set things up again at Denare Beach the next night.
The group is facing a series of possible issues going forward. First is the increasing cost of fireworks, like most other goods this year - this year’s show cost almost as much as last years, despite featuring far few rounds being fired.
Age, health and the number of volunteers also play a factor. The youngest member of the group, Jones, is the only member of the group under 30 - he’s one of a small minority of volunteers under age 50. Other members have had health problems that threaten to lessen the role they can play in the show each year. Ideally, the group looks for as many volunteers as possible - this year, the group had around 10 volunteers helping for setup during the day and that number is declining.
“We have people that don't help us fundraise, but they're here, lugging all this stuff around. That's fine. Everybody does their part in some way, what they want to do. We don't demand people do this or that,” Frazer said.
“We do it because we like doing it. That's as simple as that. Everybody here does their part and without all of us, with just one person missing, it just throws it off. We all enjoy it.”
Frazer said the group is willing to go the extra mile to bring new people in, including training them how to safely use fireworks.
“We will teach you and get you through the course. We'll shoot some hand firing to learn, because you have to do that as part of the course. I'll even get to right up into putting all this stuff up and doing the show, because we’re not going to be around forever," he said.
“We’d like to keep this going for as long as we can.”
Possible new volunteers are asked to contact Haygarth or Frazer year-round.