Fifteen minutes before the show, Gary Stambaugh was smiling.
The Wizards of Winter behind the scenes with Juneau's frigid fireworks 022614 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly Fifteen minutes before the show, Gary Stambaugh was smiling.

James Brooks | Ccw Photos

Sigrid Dahlberg, left, and Gary Stambaugh look into the sky above Eaglecrest Ski Area on Feb. 15, 2014 as they are illuminated by the fireworks they control.

James Brooks | Ccw

Gary Stambaugh, left, and Sigrid Dahlberg, right, control the Winter Fireworks Spectacular at Eaglecrest Ski Area on Feb. 15, 2014. The pair of pyrotechnicians are the coordinating force behind Juneau's annual fireworks displays.

James Brooks | Ccw

Gary Stambaugh unloads a sled with the help of other fireworks volunteers as they prepare for the start of the show Feb. 15, 2014 at Eaglecrest Ski Area.

James Brooks | Ccw Photos

Sigrid Dahlberg watches the Eaglecrest Ski Patrol assemble before their torchlight parade Feb. 15, 2014.

James Brooks | Ccw

Members of the Eaglecrest Ski Patrol light their torches before the torchlight parade at the start of the fireworks show Feb. 15, 2014.

James Brooks | Ccw Photos

Gary Stambaugh struggles with a faulty control cable attached to his control board February 15, 2014 at Eaglecrest Ski Area.

James Brooks | Ccw Photos

Snow falls around Gary Stambaugh as he prepares for the start of the fireworks show Feb. 15, 2014 at Eaglecrest Ski Area.

Click Thumbnails to View
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Story last updated at 2/26/2014 - 1:30 pm

The Wizards of Winter behind the scenes with Juneau's frigid fireworks

Fifteen minutes before the show, Gary Stambaugh was smiling.

Fifteen minutes into the show, he was swearing.

On Feb. 15 at Eaglecrest Ski Area, Stambaugh and Sigrid Dahlberg watched as their fireworks show blew up in their faces - almost exactly as planned.

Together, the pair are the heart of a team of volunteers behind every significant Juneau fireworks show. They're on the barge at the Fourth of July, and they're at Eaglecrest in winter.

"We love fireworks," Dahlberg said. "I mean, we love to blow things up, but we love this."

Most of those at Eaglecrest this month only saw the explosions - they didn't see the hundred-plus hours of preparation that made those explosions possible.

Each year, the City and Borough of Juneau has a fireworks budget big enough to satisfy even a 12-year-old boy. In 2005, the Fourth of July show alone cost $30,000.

The fireworks volunteers are in charge of making sure that money gets burned.

The fireworks come from China, packaged in spherical bombs with an attached fuse. The bombs come as large as 12 inches in diameter, but Stambaugh and Dahlberg use smaller ones at Eaglecrest. Thanks to reverberations off the mountains, "these look as big as the 10-inchers on the barge," he said.

The pair could simply grab a torch and light the fireworks as they come, but they favor a safer route. Each firework is coupled to an explosive squib linked to an electronic board.

Black, with rows of light-up flip switches, the boards (Stambaugh and Dahlberg each have one) look like something from a 1970s synthesizer or something fitted for a mad scientist's lab.

Mated with a squib, the fireworks are dropped into long black tubes that guide the bombs as they launch into the air.

At Eaglecrest's shop, volunteers loaded the tubes with explosives, then loaded the tubes onto a sled dragged by the ski area's Sno-Cat.

"Every single (volunteer) here is a user of Eaglecrest. We have skiers, snowboarders, patrollers, crazy people," Stambaugh said, gesturing to himself after the final category.

As daylight waned, Stambaugh, Dahlberg and a team of volunteers followed the sled up the Muskeg trail.

"It's not the shooting that's the hard part," Dahlberg explained. "It's this, the setting up and knowing what to do after you say, 'Oh Gosh, where's that part?'"

Dahlberg and Stambaugh unrolled cables, attached batteries and set up a flimsy card table a safe distance away from the now-detached sled.

A steady snow fell, but the pair were confident that the tarps and plastic atop the mortar tubes would keep the fireworks dry.

"Best show ever," Stambaugh predicted. "Someone says that every year."

Stambaugh and Dahlberg have done more fireworks shows than they can remember. They were on hand in 2000 for Juneau's millennium celebration, and they've been through rain, snow and brilliant clear nights.

"We work well together, and that's a good thing when you're shooting off really big bombs," Dahlberg said.

Bigger shows use computer programs to synchronize the timing of their fireworks. Dahlberg and Stambaugh structure their shows by hand, writing a script to be written in red, gold and green sparkles.

"Fireworks are actually very musical," Dahlberg said. A show needs to build tension and relax it, just like a musical piece.

Each show, they learn something new - and it isn't always as mundane as composition.

At one gusty Fourth of July, Stambaugh was partially blinded when a low-exploding firework threw soot in his eyes. He kept the show going, and his vision recovered. He quickly added goggles to his arsenal of fireworks tools.

Rain soaked one show, and the waterlogged bombs exploded low or didn't blow at all.

At another, Juneau's infamous wind picked up.

"They'd come and ask us, 'Why were you shooting over there at the parking lot?'" Dahlberg said. "Well, we weren't."

Back at Eaglecrest, with darkness fallen and a crowd gathered below, the ski area's instructors set off downhill with lit torches.

When they reached the end of their run, a sheet-metal, propane-belching dragon flared to life.

"Down (there), they feel the heat," Stambaugh said. "It's a much more visceral show (than the Fourth of July)."

Volunteers below lit torches and set off rippling batteries of fireworks that angled over the Muskeg trail.

"Looks like the war's started," Stambaugh said.

As if that were a signal, Dahlberg and Stambaugh sat down and turned on their control boards. On each, 32 small red lights blazed.

Dahlberg threw a switch.

The light winked out, the sky winked on.

Like touch typists, they worked, their heads to the sky and their fingers moving. They hit switches singly or in pairs, a sequence worked out in advance.

When all 32 lights were dim, the pair each turned a knob at the side of their boards. The lights came on again, and the show continued.

At some point, Dahlberg ran off to set off a package of fireworks by hand. But the snow was coming down, and the lighter went out.

The show came to an abrupt halt, and the cheering started.

Over the radio, Stambaugh called for a torch from down below.

Dahlberg returned to her board and the two started flicking switches again. The torch arrived, and the torch-lit fireworks added a new level of intensity.

Then, as Stambaugh turned the knob to re-light his board, it didn't work. The lights didn't come on.

"It's on, it's armed - shit!" Stambaugh said, before it was his turn to run.

He ran to the sled, and with both boards off and the sky dark, the crowd below cheered again, this time louder.

Seconds felt like minutes before Stambaugh ran back, having re-routed a failed cable.

This time, when the lights on his board came back on, there was no subtlety.

"Just hit it," he said, and they did.

Rows of switches fell, and the Eaglecrest sky lit up like day - a day with a red, green and gold sky.

The noise of the explosions only briefly blotted the shouts of the crowd, and when the explosions died off, the shouts and cheering continued.

Frustrated, Stambaugh ran down the ski hill, waving his lantern to say the show had ended - and the lantern flew apart in his hand.

"See, you just never know what's going to happen," he said, shaking his head at it all.

"You never know what's going to happen because of the temperatures and the moisture, it's just different every time, no matter how well you plan it out," Dahlberg said.

If the show was a disaster at the top of the hill, it was an overwhelming success at the bottom, where spectators gathered around a bonfire after the fireworks ended.

As many explained, they had thought the show was over, and were about to start back to their cars when it started back up. Then it happened again, and they loved every moment of it. It was like a grand "gotcha" moment, many said.

"It was excellent," Todd Harper said.

"Amazing," chimed in his 8-year-old daughter, Baylee.

But was it the best ever?

"Yes," she said.