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What a blast: Looking back at a century of fireworks in Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach first celebrated Independence Day with fireworks 106 years ago.

It is likely there were hiatus periods, especially during World War II when blackout restrictions were observed along the coast.

But blasting explosives is an Independence Day tradition.

The Tribune reported that in the 1860s and '70s, the poor man's fireworks was anvil firing.

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A carnival sits at the entrance of the Pismo Beach Pier on July 4, 1968 The site is currently occupied by the Inn at the Pier. David Ranns Telegram-Tribune

Set one anvil atop another, sandwiching a black powder charge, light the fuse — and hilarity ensues. Unless, that is, the anvil falls out of the sky on top of someone or fractures off bits of shrapnel, wounding those nearby.

If Wile E. Coyote is the chairman of the entertainment committee, run the other way.

Joe Brekke wrote this story for The Tribune, on June 30, 2000. The photos, which reveal the carnival that once sat at the entrance to the Pismo Beach Pier (current site of the Inn at the Pier), were taken by David Ranns in 1968.

Tuesday is Showtime For Pyrotechs Who Plan To Light Up Sky

Bill Weidner and Dave Anderson are getting ready for the Fourth of July. They dug the wooden cue box out of Weidner's storage shed in Corralitus Canyon. They pulled the blue tarp off the pallets stacked with makeshift mortars. This weekend they will check the electric current flowing to more than 100 little launching pads. And on Tuesday, they will let 'em fly.

"That sends the juice to the circuit," Weidner explained earlier this week, touching a pen-like probe to a small bolt on the green cue box he built five years ago. "That lights the fuse and up they go."

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Onlookers watch Independence Day fireworks in Pismo Beach on July 4, 1968. David Ranns Telegram-Tribune

Every Independence Day, a human tsunami intent on seeing fireworks hits Pismo Beach. Local police estimate as many as 30,000 people flood the city streets and line the beach to "ooh" and "ahh" at the colorful bursts.

Fourth of July celebrations in Pismo date to 1912, according to Charla Anderson, chief executive officer of the Pismo Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has sponsored the costly fireworks display since the early 1970s. This year, $15,000 will go up in smoke for the celebration. Anderson says it's money well spent.

"We're very patriotic and we believe in showing our patriotism," she said. "That's what it's all about. We are a business organization, but for this particular event, we do this for our community."

A local crew of volunteers like Weidner and Anderson have fired the show for years, following the lead of one "licensed pyro."

Shannon Martin has coordinated Pismo's pyrotechnic display for nearly a decade. And even though he moved from Pismo to Washington, D.C., two years ago, Martin won't miss his night on the pier.

"It's just a lot of fun," Martin said with a laugh from his East Coast home. "I guess it's every kid's fantasy to shoot these huge fireworks. Growing up, you see the little tiny firecrackers, smaller than your pinkie finger. I get to shoot shells 8 inches in diameter 1,500 feet in the air."

While more than half of the show is launched electronically by Weidner's cue box, when Martin started on the pier 20 years ago, everything was lit by hand with a road flare and racks had to be reloaded after every round.

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A crowd watches Independence Day fireworks in Pismo Beach on July 4, 1968. David Ranns Telegram-Tribune

Today, the crew still lights half the show by hand-held flares. But it's a novelty now, giving new volunteers the same thrill that hooked Martin so long ago.

"Back in 1979, I was working at a Mobil gas station that happened to be owned by the ex-fire chief of Pismo Beach, who also happened to be the town's licensed pyrotechnician," Martin explained. "One day he said, 'Hey, Shannon, help us out down at the pier tonight.' I told him I didn't want to do it. I didn't know anything about that. I ended up helping him anyway and I haven't missed a year since."

Martin earned his pyrotechnic license for public displays more than a decade ago. The state requires numerous classes and workshops focused on pyro-safety combined with extensive work in shows coordinated by licensed pros.

"Pyrotechnicians are in great demand," he said. "There are more shows to be shot than there are people to shoot them."

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Independence Day fireworks explode in the skies over Pismo Beach on July 4, 1968. David Ranns File

But Martin has a soft spot for the Pismo show. In 1990, he and his wife had migrated to Australia for a year, but flew back in time for the show. In 1992, the couple served as missionaries in Romania. They helped build an orphanage, but returned to Pismo Beach for the Fourth of July.

They moved to Washington, D.C., two years ago where his wife is working on a law degree, but Martin will be back again in time for Tuesday's show. The master mechanic is just as excited to come home, step into his fireproof coveralls, pull on the protective gloves and strap on his motorcycle helmet to light up the skies.

A volunteer crew of 25 guys and one gal start the day with a barbecue around noon.

"I have to be absolutely sure nobody has been drinking," Martin explained. "So we spend the day together and go over plans and have a good time. Usually about 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. we head down to the pier and start setting up."

Wooden racks holding four or five "mortars" each are nailed to the end of the pier, facing out in all directions and angles. Hundreds of the heavy-duty PVC pipe "mortars" are secured.

At 7 p.m. the fire chief inspects the entire set up. Firefighters then soak the end of the pier with water, so stray sparks won't catch fire. Four firefighters stay on pier with live hoses throughout the show.

When the sun goes down, Martin starts sending up the blasts.

"I don't hardly get to watch," he said. "I look up every once in a while, but mostly my attention is on the crew. My team leaders and I have to be able to handle any problems as soon as they happen. I've been very fortunate that I've have a dedicated group of volunteers. We've never had an injury where anyone needed any medical attention. The most dangerous part of the show is the initial construction."

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They launch red "chrysanthemums" and blue "crackling palms," "fiery tails" and green "Saturn shells," red "heart shells" and "spider shells."

"Whatever noises you hear and sights you see, that's pretty much what they're called," Martin said. "We want to grab everyone's attention at first with some big stuff, but then we'll drop off pretty quick. We don't want to keep the sky full all the time, people can't stay excited that long. We like to bring them up and down."

Martin said by now the crew can predict when the beach masses will "ooh" and "ahh," but they still save the best for last.

"The finale's always fun," he said. "We like to put up almost 100 shells in about 10 seconds. The way we set up the show ahead of time now it gives us a lot more freedom to shoot in different directions. Our goal is to fill up the sky."

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp
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