Independence Day, that most colorful and distinctly American holiday, is crammed with hot dogs, parades, flags—and a lot of fireworks. Some of the best ones are found at the annual Haggen 4th of July Celebration in Bellingham, bursting (literally) with dazzling lights and colors that fill up the night sky over Bellingham Bay.
The Bellingham Fourth of July fireworks are led by John Fisher, head pyrotechnician, who has set up and set off Bellingham’s fireworks show for nearly 30 years now. His company, Port Gardner/Wolverine West Fireworks, puts on incredible shows across Washington every year.
Fisher, 70, lives in Everett. After working for Boeing for nearly 30 years as a quality control aviation technician, he retired about six years ago. Fisher began setting off fireworks in 1990, and worked pyrotechnics for the Bellingham show for the first time under a different company.
The Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce—who partner with Haggen and the Port of Bellingham for the annual Independence Day fanfare—later encouraged him and others to form their own company. They did. Port Gardner Fireworks was born, and now handles fireworks shows across our region, including pyrotechnics for the Deming Speedway, Sumas, and even the Everett AquaSox baseball team. Port Gardner would later merge with Wolverine West Fireworks, another Washington fireworks company.
Though Fisher is the president of Port Gardner, friends and family always help him out.
“Basically, what we do is bring out relatives, and then a lot of times we’ll hire people from the Lighthouse Mission to come and set all the mortar tubes in place with sand and timbers,” Fisher says. All mortar tubes are buried in sand or in racks. “We start setting up four or five days ahead of time.”
As a pyrotechnician, Fisher sets up and packs up shows over the summer. He works with a variety of firework shell sizes, too.
“The biggest shell we’ve fired off in Bellingham was 16 inches across the gap,” he says. “That’s about the size of the tubes on the Battleship Missouri.”
Fisher preps in the springtime, buying products from China and other places. He breaks them all down into shows, such as Bellingham, Sumas, Deming Speedway, and so on. The hardest part is setting up for bigger shows, because problems can arise. They get plenty of help, though, and despite being around explosives, Fisher and other pyrotechnicians are extremely careful.
“The shells have a quick match that goes 40 feet per second, but there’s a lower fuse at the very end,” Fisher explains. “We’re usually far away enough electronically. We’re using a thing called a squib—a detonator that goes into the match. And when that hits, it goes instantly. We have cables that run where detonator wires go into. We’re away from the stuff where it’s going off. We have complete control over everything.”
When it comes to his job, Fisher loves the excitement and bringing people together. He also loves being able to watch the fireworks from his unique spot below the action.
“You’re right down where the fireworks are. You’re sitting there with your firing panel, flipping switches, right down below it when stuff’s going off,” he says. “Nobody else is in that position. It’s like being in a different world.”
Fisher comes to Bellingham often. His wife likes shopping at Bellis Fair Mall, and Fisher himself enjoys the atmosphere. He feels privileged to do shows for Bellingham, he says, and makes a lot of new friends.
“It’s always been fun. Because getting to know all the people from the Chamber, and all their friends—every year we meet somebody new. Everett and Bellingham are kind of alike, in a way. [Both are] basically blue-collar waterfronts; both really friendly towns.”
The quality and size of shows always depend on the budget, and sometimes Fisher can go all out.
“One of the best shows we ever did up there was the time we had 8- to 16-inch shells,” Fisher says. “They had a huge budget that year, so we had all these big shells. Basically, the show is going to go by your budget, and then you coordinate all the different size shells. You want to give them the best bang for your buck.”
Some of Fisher’s most rewarding moments happen right after a show—especially, in Bellingham, just after the fireworks finish shooting off over the water.
“When the show’s over and the grand finale goes off, hearing all those horns from all the boats going off in the bay and the crowd cheering from the city…. there’s thousands of people down there,” he says. “That probably makes the whole day.”’
Even if a set-up, or the entire day, has been stressful, hearing those cheers makes it all worth it to Fisher.
Keep an eye out for the Port Gardner/Wolverine West Fireworks show at this year’s Haggen 4th of July celebration this year. Fisher, as always, will be there and ready.