Second in a series by Mike Whittlesey

It’s an annual tradition at the Festival of Trails Celebration, as the night sky over La Porte City is set ablaze with flashing colors and the booming sounds of a fireworks display that is “Thunder Over La Porte City.” Over the past 15 years, the show has grown in magnitude and intensity, thanks to lead operators Mike and Heather Chingren and a crew of dedicated volunteers. Their story dates back to 2004, when the show was moved from the La Porte City Golf Club to Union High School, the first time Mike Chingren took over the reigns of the local fireworks display. Chingren, owner of Black Hawk Auto Refinishers, initially became interested in fireworks courtesy of his day job when a customer brought in a vehicle that was damaged unlike anything he had seen before. As he asked questions about what could have caused portions of the paint to become scorched, Chingren learned it had been an unfortunate victim of stray fallout from a fireworks show.

With a new-found interest in pyrotechnics piqued, it didn’t take long before Chingren was learning all he could about the ins and outs of shooting fireworks professionally. It began with a certification process that included taking a course offered by the Pyrotechnics Guild International (PGI), passing the requisite exam, then providing documentation of successfully assisting with five different fireworks displays. Of the five internships he documented, one had to be completed in the role of lead operator while under the supervision of another qualified operator.

While helping with the presentation of the 2003 Festival of Trails fireworks display at the Golf Club, Chingren began thinking about how the show could become bigger and better. Enhancing the presentation, he reasoned, was a simple matter of economics. Upon earning his PGI certification, he discovered additional licensure offered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) would make it possible for him to purchase fireworks at wholesale pricing.

GRAND FINALE – With hundreds of shells used for the grand finale, racks of mortars are loaded onto a trailer that can conveniently be hauled into place. Photo by Mike Whittlesey.

Armed with the proper licenses the following year and many more fireworks to shoot, thanks to wholesale discounts on the products purchased, the 2004 show in La Porte City closed with a much bigger bang. Instead of finishing with a series of 36 shells like the previous year, Chingren triggered hundreds of fireworks at the end of the new show to put a robust “grand” in the grand finale. A new standard had been set for La Porte City fireworks and it was called “Thunder Over La Porte City.”

There is much that goes on behind the scenes of a fireworks display that spectators never see. For each 20 minute presentation that plays out in the night sky, hundreds of hours are invested in designing, planning and executing the look and feel of the show. For Mike and Heather Chingren, the art of creating a fireworks display for the Festival of Trails begins months in advance. Fortunately, technological advances in computer software can help streamline the process of creating a show, which can range in complexity from a very basic show that is fired manually to one with extreme sophistication, a choreographed production with pyrotechnics synced to a musical score.

With the Chingrens opting for a fully choreographed production, preparation for the 2019 show began in January. Their first step was to identify the music and songs that would comprise the show’s soundtrack. In the world of fireworks, the choice of sound is a critical element of the creative process. Music, for example, can be used to provide cues to the spectators, such as when the show is about to begin. It can also prompt what types of fireworks are best to be used, both on the ground and in the air. When listening to music to determine its appropriateness for pyrotechnics, Mike Chingren focuses on the tempo, searching for certain peaks that can correspond with the bursting display of shells.
To assist them in the process of designing a very complex show, the Chingrens utilize a software package called Finale, a powerful program that can manage all aspects of the production. Once the songs and musical elements have been selected, the software can trim each musical piece to just the portion needed, then combine all of the tracks into one cohesive soundtrack.

Once the Chingrens had the music in place, decisions were then made to match various types of fireworks they intended to use with the beat of the music. Having created and shot dozens of shows, the Chingrens’ experience gives them command of a vast catalog of fireworks effects they can choose to insert at any point of the production. The expertise they call upon is much like that of a master chef choosing the necessary ingredients for a gourmet meal.

Because of their experience, matching visual effects with a soundtrack is not the greatest challenge the Chingrens face creating the production. A far greater obstacle is making sure there are sufficient financial resources to pay for all of the visual effect they’d like to use.

“We’re almost always over budget,” Mike Chingren said, noting the ideal amount of fireworks desired is often more than donations for the project can afford. Even at wholesale pricing, it doesn’t take long to spend $10,000 on professional grade fireworks. When that occurs, there are always ways to balance the show’s look and sound with the checkbook. It might mean that fewer shells are used or that some of the high-end effects are replaced with consumer grade fireworks, which are typically cheaper to use.
Once the choice of fireworks has been made, final decisions can be input into the computer, giving the Chingrens a simulated view of the display matched in real-time with the soundtrack.

The software they use also allows them to configure the layout of the site. It can then generate the necessary site plans and other paperwork that would answer any questions a fire marshal might have about the show. Another convenience the software offers is the ability to export a complete inventory of all of the fireworks needed, a nice feature when it comes time to purchase them.

When the Chingrens have completed their work creating the show, the software will produce a file that contains all of the information needed to control its operation. That file can be saved on a flash drive, making it possible to launch and control the show on the elementary school grounds without a computer.

2019 “THUNDER OVER LA PORTE CITY” – “Even at wholesale pricing, it doesn’t take long to spend $10,000 on professional grade fireworks.” Photo by Mike Whittlesey.

Unlike the days when state law restricted the use of fireworks, sending Iowa consumers across the state’s southern border to Missouri for the purchase of products they couldn’t get at home, the pyrotechnics used in “Thunder Over La Porte City” are purchased in-state from Flashing Thunder. The company, based in Mitchell, Iowa, is a fireworks wholesaler that also serves the general public with a handful of retail locations in northeast Iowa.

It takes a crew of up to 10 volunteers a full day to setup the display, which is now done on the open field situated behind La Porte City Elementary School. Each bank of fireworks are located in specially designated sections identified on the site plan. The grand finale, which incorporates 400-500 shells alone, is actually mounted on a trailer, making it easier to configure and move into place.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE – Setup for the festival of Trails “Thunder Over La Porte City” begins early on the day of the shoot and relies on mortars, round tubes often placed in racks, where the shells are inserted. The shells are then wired into control modules (inset). Each control module has a wireless connection to a master control unit which sends the signal to ignite the fireworks in a predetermined order. Photos by Mike Whittlesey.

For each bank of fireworks situated on the site plan, the shells are wired into a control module (mod), which will help determine the order in which the shells are fired. Each mod is powered by three nine volt batteries and communicates wirelessly with a master control unit. With a total of around 40 mods used for the show, that means at least 120 batteries will be needed to ensure “Thunder Over La Porte City” goes off as planned. It is the wiring of shells into each control mod that takes up much of the day for the volunteers who brave the heat and hope the weather allows to the show to be presented that evening. If rain develops or becomes an issue, the crew quickly covers the exposed fireworks in an effort to keep them dry. Once everything has been connected, a device can be used ensure the necessary electrical connections to fire the show are sound, something Mike Chingren will do multiple times prior to the show. This year, the culmination of months of preparation and a final day of painstakingly wiring everything together will pay dividends when dusk recedes into darkness on Friday evening. At the appropriate time, the 2019 edition of “Thunder Over La Porte City” will literally be launched with the press of just one button.

From start to finish, Mike Chingren estimates a total of around 400 hours of labor are invested into the 25 minute production La Porte City residents will enjoy at the Festival of Trails, the vast majority of it completed on a volunteer basis. While some might think that to be an awful lot of work to invest in the finished product, for the Chingrens it’s time well-spent on a hobby, as well as the hometown they love.

La Porte City residents in the vicinity of La Porte City Elementary School are reminded that throughout the day on Friday, June 14, wind conditions for the fireworks show are checked with the firing of test shells that could cause stress for pets and others sensitive to loud noises. If possible, remaining indoors is recommended.

Weather permitting, this year’s fireworks show is scheduled to begin around 10 PM on June 14. It will feature a 21 gun salute to Jim Robertson, an avid, long-time supporter of the fireworks show in La Porte City, who passed away in March.