Man behind Tacoma fireworks show ‘a pyro’ of 30 years

Gary Louderback won’t see Friday’s fireworks display at Tacoma’s Freedom Fair, but he’ll have more adrenaline from the show than anyone watching it.

“I still get just as excited on every show as I did when I first started,” said the Tacoma native, who has been a pyrotechnician for about 30 years, and has shot off explosives at Freedom Fair for about five. “It’s special being from Tacoma and being able to shoot the show.”

The display is expected to start about 10:10 p.m. as the finale of the Fourth of July events along the Ruston Way waterfront between McCarver Street and the Lobster Shop.

Louderback has never actually seen the display, because he runs the show from a wooden shelter, on the barge in Commencement Bay, that’s wired with the fireworks.

“I watch the shells as they come out of the mortars,” he said. “I don’t see the show at all. The shelter covers my computers, so they don’t get burned up in case something comes down.”

Louderback, Tacoma born and raised, also shoots off fireworks at Cheney Stadium on some Fridays after Rainiers games, and for the Independence Day show there July 3.

His company, Western Display Fireworks, is based in Canby, Oregon.

As the head pyrotechnician for the Freedom Fair show, Louderback flips the switch (and another for a backup system) to start the show. He, along with about eight others on the barge, makes sure everything goes smoothly.

The computer does the rest. The crew steps in only if something goes wrong, such as the rare small fire on deck, he said.

There’s prep work involved, too.

“I just watch over and make sure that all the mortars are set in the right place,” Louderback said. “Since it’s a computerized fire, there’s a lot of things that are going off at the same time, and I need to make sure they’re where they need to be.”

He oversaw the loading of the barge and placement of the fireworks Wednesday in Seattle. Each explosive has a number, and a specific spot on the vessel.

“Probably the most important part is getting them wired into the right place, so they shoot to the music,” he said.

He doesn’t know what Friday’s music will be, and definitely won’t hear it during the show, he said.

Louderback guesses there will be about 6,000 shells set for the Tacoma display, which totals $50,000.

That’s about a third of the size of the Ivar’s Fourth of July show he used to run in Seattle.

Which is fine by him.

“I’m a little bit older,” he said, adding that he’s 63. “It’s kind of nice to have one that’s a little bit less intense. But it’s still a really great show and I’m really excited for it, always.”

Asked if his family watches his shows, he proudly said he has two sons who are licensed pyros.

“That’s my baby,” he said of his youngest son, who was wearing an orange hardhat and overseeing a bobcat machine being lowered onto the barge Wednesday.

That’s 37-year-old Justin Louderback, who said he’s been helping his dad handle fireworks since the day he turned 18 and was legally allowed to.

He’ll be on the barge Friday too.

“(Dad) ain‘t going to let me out of his sight,” Justin Louderback said. “He likes things done so safe. He really tries to keep the same people, so it’s done the same way. It’s going to be a good one, I’ll tell you that.”

Asked if he’s worried about his sons, or himself, should an explosive go awry during a show, Gary Louderback said the company stresses safety.

“Anything could happen, but the chance of it is about zero,” he said.

He said his sons prefer to run hand-shot shows, where they light the explosives themselves.

“They’re still young enough where they like that,” he said. “We actually use a highway flare. It can get a little intense. It takes me about two hours to come down after I’ve shot a hand-lit show.”

Only about two of the 30 shows he does a year are fired by hand.

It takes a specific personality to be a pyro, Gary Louderback said.

“You probably have to be not totally crazy, but maybe half,” he said, showing a fireworks tattoo on his calf that he says glows under a black light.

The adrenaline that comes with the job helps, he said, because his work isn’t finished when the last firework goes off.

“After the show is over, we tear everything back down, put it into the semis and take it back to Canby, Oregon,” he said. “Basically, my job is to set it up, blow it up, and tear it down.”

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