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Lots of preparation needed for Lodi Lake fireworks show

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Posted: Thursday, July 5, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 8:54 am, Thu Jul 5, 2012.

It's five minutes before Lodi's fireworks show, and Paul Nicholls is standing in front of a control panel with 32 switches. He's wearing a protective fire jacket, a hard hat, glasses and noise-canceling headphones.

He has spent three days constructing, inspecting and endlessly thinking about the 20-minute fireworks show he is about to begin at Lodi Lake.

The cheers of thousands of eager spectators waft across the lake as Nicholls flips on the control board.

"It's not something you get used to. It's something you get addicted to," he said.

The fireworks show featured 805 shells exploding in the sky in celebration of the Fourth of July.

A team of nine men and women were responsible for the entire show. Nicholls, a Lodi resident and owner of Lodi Custom Choppers, has been in charge of the show at the lake for the last three years and has been in the industry for 14 years.

"I love the ability to stay in my home town and shoot a show for people you know and even people you don't know," he said,

This year, Nicholls started working for J&M Displays, which he says provides bigger, more explosive shows.

The crew had to learn new electrical equipment and products. They also added a third barge to fit the 805 tubes the fireworks launch out of. The barges are then anchored, and all of the wires go from the fireworks stands to a place on shore where Nicholls is ready to fire.

He fired from a switch board for the Lodi show, but often his crew will manually light the fuses, which he describes as akin to getting hit in the chest with a piece of plywood.

Starting last year, the city of Lodi decided to conduct the show from barges because the location where the fireworks were shot before — the western shore — now houses Lodi's surface water treatment plant.

It was the first show in Lodi using J&M, costing the city $15,000 in fireworks and $2,000 to bring in barges from Cameron Park, said Jeff Hood, the interim Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services director. In the future, he is hoping the city can get some service groups to help build barges so more funds can be spent on the actual show.

The 20-minute show takes days of preparation. The barges arrived Monday. The workers built stands for all of the tubes on Tuesday.

At 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, hundreds of people gathered for the annual Kiwanis Club pancake breakfast, listening to live bands and enjoying a variety of foods. Others placed their blankets along the lake shore to reserve spots for the show.

But near the boat dock, four men were diligently hammering the last nails into the wood modules.

Around 9 a.m., the crew brought out the fireworks to start placing each shell on the tubes to plan out the show.

The firework shells shoot out of 3- to 4-inch-tall, high-density polyethylene tubes. They can withstand a firework exploding in the tube, shooting sparks up in the air, which is described as flower pots.

"They are incredibly strong to withstand the abuse they endure," Nicholls said.

For the rest of the day, the crew secured the wires and then tested and retested the connections that tend to come lose with the movement of the barge.

Each firework is handmade in China, and when they explode, they range in diameter from 200 to 500 feet. In their packaging, they look like ice cream cones with a sphere on the top and a cone shape on bottom. When one is lit, the bottom lifts the shell out of the plastic tube. As the fuse continues to burn, it will explode once it reaches altitude.

The show included everything from the green rings on Saturn, to mad bees that streak across the sky, to Nicholls' favorite — concentric rings

"This company prides itself in getting a large array to keep people guessing what's coming next," Nicholls said.

Nicholls' day job as the owner of Lodi Custom Choppers is working on fuel injection systems. Fourteen years ago, a family friend asked if he wanted to help on the Stockton fireworks show.

"My first show, I was hooked. Explosions were going off all over and stuff was whizzing by my head," he said.

Now he is a licensed pyrotechnician doing shows all over the state in his free time. His crew is made up of men and women from the Lodi and Stockton area, including his wife and father-in-law.

"You learn how to ride a bike, but with this, you learn how to ride a bike while juggling sticks of dynamite," he said.

Nicholls said he never hesitates to work on firework shows, whether it's at the Stockton Ports game, at the 99 Speedway or at First Night.

Even though he has been working on shows for the past 14 years, he feels nervous and excited before every show. He admits there is a lot of pressure when thousands of people are waiting and watching.

"I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing on the Fourth of July," he said. "It's taking pride in what you do and hoping everything goes OK," he said.

Safety is a top priority. Nicholls ensures that no members of the public are within 400 feet of the fireworks.

As the crew prepared Wednesday night, eight people spread out along Lodi Lake's north shore to watch the barges and the show for any warning signs.

Lodi resident David McInnes and Stockton resident Bud Hopkins, Nicholls' father-in-law, crouched down in the grass. With every boom from the fireworks leaving the barge, they waited for the noise of the explosion in the sky to make sure every one detonated.

When one string of fireworks started, McInnes said, "That's my rack." With big smiles on their faces, their excitement over watching all of their hard work go up into the sky was palatable.

As a string of 250 fireworks shot up into the air for the finale, the noise was deafening. It was then immediately followed by screams from across the lake.

Standing in front of the control panel, Nicholls said, he threw his hands into the air, enjoying the applause.

"That's the noise, everybody. That's the noise," he said.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com. Read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/citybuzz.

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