By Tim Leeds
With great care and preparation, the Havre Jaycees are continuing a decades-old tradition Sunday - their Independence Day fireworks display at the Hill County Fairgrounds.
Jaycees project manager Jason Murri told members of the service organization to use care and common sense while setting off the fireworks.
"These things can and will kill you," he said at a meeting Tuesday. "You're working with an explosive."
The Jaycees' care seems to work. Murri said in an interview he doesn't know of any volunteer or audience member being seriously injured at any of the shows, going back at least to the 1970s. The extent of injuries is minor bruises and burns from sparks landing on people, he said.
The safety demonstration Murri gave at the fairgrounds Tuesday was nearing the end of several months of work - Murri starts doing the paperwork in February - leading up to the Fourth of July display. The process includes applying for state and federal permits and notification of local authorities, ordering the fireworks, selling fireworks at the Jaycees' booth, and preparing the show.
The volunteer effort is a lot of work - Murri said he hasn't been able to spend much time with his family at its annual Fourth of July get-together since he began managing the project four years ago - but he said it's worth it.
Randy and Kristin Randolph started volunteering to work the show last year. Kristin Randolph said she started because she's always liked watching the shows.
"It's really cool," she said.
"It's something that's nice to do for the community," Randy Randolph added.
Jaycees president Andy Owens said the show makes all the work worthwhile.
"Once the work is done getting them set up, setting them off is just a rush," he said.
Kris Murri, Jason Murri's wife, said what she likes is the reaction from the crowd. It's easy to tell the fireworks people like - horns honk, headlights flash and people shout.
"It's a blast," she said.
Setting off the display gives Jason Murri the same kind of adrenaline rush people say they get from skydiving or driving a race car.
"For me, this is the same thing," he said.
Volunteers also staff the Jaycees' fireworks booth, located this year in the parking lot north of Super 8 Motel. The booth opened June 24 this year, and will be open through Sunday.
The booth provides all of the money to pay for the display, which is the sole responsibility of the Jaycees. The Havre Rotary Club has provided the insurance for the event for the last three years, and Frontier Landscaping loaned the use of a Bobcat to prepare the grounds last year and has offered its use again this year, Murri said.
He said the only insurance he can find that would cover the Jaycees display would cost about $5,000, three to five times more than what the Jaycees have left after paying for the fireworks.
"Without the Rotary Club co-sponsoring it, we couldn't do it anymore," he said.
Owens said community support for the booth is important to guarantee that the display continues. If sales at the booth drop off, the quality of the display could suffer, or it could disappear entirely, he said.
"The fireworks booth is what puts the display on," Owens said. "If we can't sell all the stuff in our booth, we can't put on a night show."
Murri, who is an employee of the Havre Daily News, said that in a typical year, the booth raises about $4,500 to $5,000. Last year's display cost about $3,500. This year's is about $4,300.
Sales were short a few years ago, he said, and the Havre Jaycees owed their commercial fireworks distributor several thousand dollars after the Fourth. The Jaycees are still making up that shortfall, he added.
The stand has some new kinds of fireworks available this year, courtesy of the Billings distributor the Jaycees started buying from a couple of years ago, Murri said.
This year's Fourth of July show also has some new surprises, he added, including two of the biggest shells the Jaycees have ever used. The shells will fire about 1,200 feet into the air and spread their display in a burst 1,000 feet across.
Those shells, which are 12 inches in diameter, are a tiny fraction of the show. Murri said the Jaycees this year also have six 8-inch shells, 23 6-inch shells, 52 5-inch shells, 72 4-inch shells and 138 3-inch shells.
The work setting the mortars will start Saturday and continue Sunday in the arena at the fairgrounds. Murri said the Bobcat with a powered auger makes the job of setting a couple hundred mortars much easier.
Once the mortars are all set, the volunteers will load them Sunday before the show.
Murri said if things go right, the volunteers loading the mortars may have an hour or so to rest before the show begins. In some years, he has seen the loading continue almost to the minute the show starts.
About half the fireworks are set off by hand, with the other half set off with electronic matches controlled by a board about 100 feet away from the fireworks.
Murri said he tries to make sure all the volunteers get to set off some fireworks by hand, but he prefers using the board.
"It's a lot safer," he said. "Plus, when you're hand firing you don't get to watch."
Murri said his distributor didn't have enough mortars to preset all of the shells, so the Jaycees will have to stop the show for about five minutes to reload about 20 mortars. He said people will know it's just a break, not the end, because he has something special lined up for the finale.
"You'll know when it's over," he said.