Heather Gobet’s world is—and always has been—fire. Since 1948 her family has owned Canby, Oregon’s Western Display Fireworks and rained aerial assaults of oohs and ahhs down on towns across the Pacific Northwest. And since 2013, when Seafair took over production of the Fourth of July display on Lake Union, Gobet has been responsible for setting the sky over Seattle ablaze with color. This year, after her father’s retirement, she’ll do it for the first time as president of the company, making Western Display a fifth-generation operation. Seafair is just one of 250 shows the company will put on this year—virtually all of them on the Fourth—but it’s easily the biggest. And Gobet can’t wait to lower the boom. —Matthew Halverson
The first thing I think of when I think about the Fourth of July is work. As much as I love the holiday and respect the history around it, it was never about fun in our household. As a kid I used to love going to the displays, but it was such a busy and work-oriented time.
I worked for the business in a real intense manner from the time I was in my teens to my early 20s. But my parents were quite young, and I knew that they had a number of years until they would want to retire, so I had this need to forge my own path and know that I could succeed at something else. So I went into real estate development and marketing for about 15 years. But there was never a time when I felt like fireworks weren’t eventually going to be my path.
Losing my grandparents really cemented my resolve to keep the family tradition alive. This story brings tears to my eyes: My grandmother passed away two years ago, and she was in quite poor health for a number of years. I started designing the shows three years ago, and we had great footage of one of them, so I took my laptop to the hospital and watched it with her. She just couldn’t believe that this little company that her father had founded was doing shows like that. She said, “This is what I remember seeing at the big exhibitions in the Far East.” I’m glad she got to see that transition.
We used to have a little house on the Oregon coast, and I took my kids down there once when they were about eight and 10 years old. I’d bought them a bunch of Oregon-legal assortments, but we looked down at the beach and these people were launching display-grade, aerial shells. And my kids just looked at me and said, “Isn’t this what we do? Aren’t you supposed to be cooler than this?”
We just don’t take chances.
The National Fire Code requires 70 feet per inch in diameter of an aerial shell for a display site. So if you’re shooting one three-inch shell straight up, you have to have 210 feet from the point that the fireworks are launched to a building or your intended spectators. Sometimes it’s so tempting. You get offered these contracts, but then you go look at the site and you’re like, “Wow, I just don’t feel comfortable with this.” We’ve walked away from hundreds of thousands of dollars of business because they were displays that in our hearts we didn’t think we could do safely.
The shows that we do that are broadcast on TV or that we have good video footage of, I will literally watch them 100 times after they’re over. The first couple times it’s like, “Oh my god, this is like magic. I’m so glad it turned out the way it did.” And then from there we watch it like a football team might watch their footage to pick the plays apart and evaluate how certain things worked.
The process of designing the Lake Union display starts almost the day after the Fourth of July. We browse Seafair’s Facebook, looking at the feedback from the general public, and we talk to Seafair. And simultaneously I have to place our orders for the product for the following year. I’m placing the order just based on preliminary thoughts and designs, so I’ll go for overkill: If I plan on introducing 10 or 12 new effects, I’ll order 15 or 20.
There are some cool ones called go-getters. They’re basically little individual stars that scoot all over the sky like bees. There are some called zip items and wiper items that basically mimic the motion of a windshield wiper. And then there’s always the big shells. At Seafair we shoot up to 10-inch shells. Those will go a thousand feet in the air and break a thousand feet in diameter. And this year we’ve designed some special firing equipment that can fan those effects out. So we’ll have almost 2,500 feet of the horizon covered with fireworks.
Some people just want to watch something blow up, and they’d be happy no matter what. But when the displays are choreographed with the computer and they’re done with this much precision, there is a different reaction to it. And a lot of times people don’t know why. They still get to watch stuff blow up, but they get to watch it blow up—hopefully—in a beautiful and meaningful way.
As much as the effects have improved and the technology that fires the product has advanced, you’re still dealing with a basic art that’s thousands of years old. There are these elements of history and danger and What’s going to happen? It’s a really universal experience.