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Urbahn marks 40 years with July 4th fireworks display

Border Days: ‘Rocket’s Red Glare’

John Urbahn with several dozen mortar tubes to be used in the July 4 Grangeville fireworks display.

Photo by Andrew Ottoson
John Urbahn with several dozen mortar tubes to be used in the July 4 Grangeville fireworks display.


John Urbahn holds a squib, used to set off fireworks.

— When John Urbahn started pitching in to help with the Border Days fireworks show, he helped his dad, Bob Urbahn, set up and launch a much smaller booming, glittering display than will be seen at the GHS football field this Independence Day. It has been four decades of joy for John Urbahn, who is about to mark his 40th year launching the July 4 fireworks with the Grangeville Volunteer Fire Department.

Bob Urbahn was the Grangeville Merchants’ man for the job, which involved burying steel mortar tubes and hand-lighting each of about 150 shells. Learning to launch shells as a young man launched John into pyrotechnics.

“He did it because someone had to do it,” John Urbahn said of his dad’s approach. “It was before the fire department was involved, and he was real safety-conscious about it.”

Then, as now, the fireworks had two main parts – a lift charge and a burst charge. The lift charge connected to an ignition fuse, and when the lift charge popped, it would light the timing fuse that passes the spark to the shell’s explosive innards. Being contained in a part-buried tube, the lift charge would propel the shell skyward. The shell would rise and rise, to a height controlled not only by the size of the lift charge, but also by the delay dictated by the timing fuse. When the spark reached the core, the burst charge would light and propel all the little glowing bits everyone in the crowd would see flying out in a thousand directions.

Assuming, of course, nothing went wrong.

“We were shooting a show in Nezperce one year, and somebody put one in the tube upside down,” Urbahn recalled.

He was jarred, but otherwise uninjured.

“It mushroomed out the bottom of it, no more than a few feet away from me,” he said. “That’s why we buried them, as a precaution.”

That was 30 years ago, and the shells, tubes and ignition fuses have all changed over time. The tubes and fuses have changed perhaps more than the shells. The shells now explode in interesting patterns – smiley faces, stars and such. The tubes are now wrapped fiberglass, having switched from steel to thermoplastic ABS to cardboard. The new fuses – which are triggered electronically – have made a big difference in the size of the Grangeville show. Urbahn and his crew launched about 700 shells last year, and are poised to launch about 800 this year.

On June 21, Urbahn’s garage was bustling, as several scores of rows of colorful tubes were strapped together to form a dozen racks. Before the switch to electronic firing, it took 15 men working in three-man teams to launch the show: one man to clean the tube, one man to load the tube and one man to light the fuse.

The accident at Nezperce was “the only time I ever saw one blow out like that,” Urbahn said. “It wakes you up if it goes off next to you.”

A more common kind of misfire – a low break – is when a shell, for whatever reason, fails to climb high enough, or otherwise bursts too low to the ground. They had one low break last year, and have seen fewer of them in recent years. The quality of the fireworks has been strong since the switch to electronics, Urbahn said, not only in terms of the behind-the-scenes things he has seen, but also in terms of the aesthetic things those who watch and listen can see for themselves.

As for the best place to watch, Urbahn said the high school football field is without a doubt the place to be.

“We see headlights from people parking up on the hills south of town,” Urbahn said, “but the fireworks must look pretty small from up that far away.”

Electronics greatly reduced the amount of manpower required, from a typical crew size of 15 a decade ago to a crew of five or six more recently. Pre-planning has also made a huge difference, and averted trouble when the electronics failed two years ago. They resorted to hand-lighting the show, and the shells went off the same as they always have.

Urbahn pointed out one area where the electronic method has made a very big improvement: at the rodeo.

“I’ve started every performance of every rodeo for more than 40 years,” Urbahn said of the salute he fires just as the National Anthem winds up and the gate opens with the day’s first bucking horse. “We used to hand-light them, but the timing was terrible. Now I have a switch. I cut the timing fuse way down, and when I hit the switch, it goes immediately.”

The salute – the one that makes a quick flash and a very big boom – never fails to put a charge into the livestock, the cowboys or the crowd. The biggest boomers Urbahn has ever seen were at the Western Pyrotechnic Association convention at Lake Havasu, which he has attended three times in the last eight years, where they set off “gas bombs” so big the shock sets off car alarms.

Types commonly seen in Grangeville include peonies, bees, willows and crossettes, and in Grangeville, the shells range in size from two to eight inches.

Apart from keeping up with technological changes and organizing the physical work involved, Urbahn is a steward of the money that goes into the show.

“With donations from Friends of the Fireworks and many other donations, we were able to spend $2,000 more this year than last year,” Urbahn said. “With inflation it’s more expensive all the time.”

Someday, Grangeville’s existing setup will become obsolete – but with private and volunteer support and so much long-learned know-how, the event is sure to continue to be a blast far into the foreseeable future.


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