The passionate pyrotechnic

Fourth of July fireworks show starts in Cortez at 9 p.m.

While sitting on the back of a trailer loaded with aerial fireworks, Keenan Ertel discusses the fireworks show planned for Cortez. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

While sitting on the back of a trailer loaded with aerial fireworks, Keenan Ertel discusses the fireworks show planned for Cortez.

Some 500 tubes loaded with pyrotechnics are set to explode over Cortez tonight.

The fireworks show is slated for 9 p.m. Friday at Parque de Vida.

The man behind the city’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show, Keenan Ertel had beads of sweat on his brow Tuesday morning as he oversaw a crew of about six volunteers who were wiring up electronic matches on nearly 500 aerial displays.

“There’s a cable that comes off the end of the shells into a junction box,” Ertel said from his ranch north of town. “That’s wired to a main panel where I have 20 different stations to monitor rails that each have 15 queues. Then you start down each row of toggle switches to fire the shells.”

That’s when the magic happens. Standing 50 feet away, Ertel will send red, white and blue explosions upward of 500 feet into the night air: all to honor the nation’s 238th birthday.

“The show will last about 45 minutes,” Ertel said.

Asked how much time he exhausted in preparation for the show, Ertel chuckled.

“I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “A bunch.”

“Probably 65 to 70 hours just by myself,” he added.

Ertel quickly interrupted the interview to provide his crew, standing atop a ranch trailer loaded with hundreds of shells, with some last minute wiring instructions.

“Lay down a rail there, and put 15 in that,” Ertel said, pointing.

“It doesn’t matter which one goes in which side?” a pyrotechnic assistant asked about the wiring.

“No,” Ertel replied. “Just push down the tab, so you know you got a tight lock on it.”

“You got to fold over the end of the wire,” another volunteer reminded the crew.

Ertel then walked into a nearby barn and sat on the edge of another trailer. It was covered with a tarp, and loaded with hundreds of other shells.

The 6-inch shells have quarter-size “stars,” black powder wrapped inside rice-hulled paper, and the stars inside the 3-inch shells are about the size of a dime.

“A 6-inch shell will go up approximately 550 feet into the air,” Ertel explained. “A 3-inch shell will go up about 280.”

“When you’re firing, you’ll set off a few 3-inchers, then maybe a 5 and a 6,” he added. “Then you come back down and do some fours and a five. You stage them, so they break off at different altitudes.”

Ertel said he was not equipped to choreograph his fireworks shows to music. He said that capability was left to “more professional” pyrotechnic displays with computerized firing sequence software.

“They do stuff that I can only dream up,” Ertel said.

A member of the Western Pyrotechnic Association, Ertel is licensed with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; National Fire Protection Association and Colorado Department of Public Safety. He’s also bonded with $5 million in liability coverage.

Suffering a few minor burns and singed hair in the past, Ertel said the most dangerous aspect of a pyrotechnic show would be what’s called a “flower pot,” when the shell explodes inside a waist-high firing tube. The second most dangerous scenario is what’s referred to as a “low break,” when the star doesn’t reach proper altitude and explodes close to the ground.

“That’s why we need such a large fallout area,” Ertel said.

Ertel also reminded pet owners who live near the park to consider keeping their pets inside during the fireworks show.

“People need to keep their pets protected,” Ertel cautioned. “Pets can get spooked and run off.”

A Montezuma County Commissioner, Ertel and his colleagues instituted a fire ban on Monday, which prohibits the use of fireworks because of the area’s drought conditions. City fire crews will be on hand tonight to ensure public safety.

“Bring a blanket or a chair,” Ertel said. “Get comfortable and enjoy the show.”

Fireworks are wired up for the Fourth of July celebration. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Fireworks are wired up for the Fourth of July celebration.