July 16, 1995 – The Columbian
Take yourself back to that soft summer night when you last saw the rocket’s red glare.
It was the 33rd annual fireworks show that capped the holiday over the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
There were 45,000 or so of you on the National Park Service grounds. Another 25,000 to 50,000 watched from vantage points around the city and south on the Oregon shore. The Columbia River was dotted with firefly lights of watercraft large, small and gigantic.
A television audience delivered for the first time through KGW-TV added 600,000 viewers.
This was Vancouver the place to be on the Fourth of July. It was the place known for having, whether by myth or magic, the largest fireworks show west of the Mississippi River.
And it was spectacular: Bursts of stars and red and white lights floating to the river under tiny parachutes. Flashes of orange light and the thumps of sound from shore to shore marked the launch of fireworks shells into the night. The brilliant bursts of light and sound drew oohs and ahhs of appreciation from young and old. It was exciting to watch and wonder what next would ride its light trail into the sky and burst into beauty.
This was Vancouver, and its fireworks show a mark of recognition and identity.
Summer festivals may come and go, but Vancouver’s annual fireworks display already extends past a third of a century.
When the sound had ebbed and the smoke cleared from the last shot, thousands headed home to Vancouver, Battle Ground, Camas, Washougal, LaCenter, Ridgefield, Amboy, Yacolt, Woodland and Portland.
A northbound traveler on the I-5 freeway after midnight told of a steady stream of cars returning south from Vancouver across the Interstate bridge to homes in Portland and beyond. It was like rush-hour traffic.
This was Vancouver, and on this night it achieved a magical quality.
If it is magic, then there has to be a magician. It is, and there is. He is Jim Larson, who organizes and orchestrates the show with the help of a few hundred of his friends all volunteers.
This show has been staged year after year.
People who don’t know think this is Vancouver’s show. They have come to demand this free event as an entitlement.
That’s the rub. It isn’t Vancouver’s show, but it should be. Vancouver’s leaders natural and political should understand that this event, more than any other, focuses regional attention on the city. But volunteers struggle year after year to make ends meet to raise $250,000 for that entertainment and safe fireworks. And they raise thousands of dollars for good charitable causes through sales from food and other booths at the site.
Financing is touch and go. Volunteers fret and sweat over the money. Will it be enough? Will fireworks sales cover the expenses?
Larson has waved his magic wand year after year. He’s scrimped and pleaded, borrowed and bartered to make sure it happens.
But this year, scrunching his bear-size frame into a battered chair at a staging area near the airport, he reflects weariness and irritation.
He thinks Vancouver, which reaps the rewards, ought to do more for this show.
“The city has not even paid its fair share,” he said.
Vancouver kicked in a paltry $10,000 this year, plus police and other in-kind services estimated at $12,000. Even so, city representatives pressured Larson to hire more outside security people for crowd control.
The city gave the Vancouver Festival $25,000 for its one and only event last summer. That fete, which flopped in most every possible measure, also received in-kind help from the city. The debts the effort left behind gave Larson some headaches. “We use the same sound, stage and lighting outfits as they did, and these guys worry about getting paid,” he said. “We’ve always paid our bills.”
There are other costs, too, such incidentals as trash cleanup and portable toilets.
The Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce isn’t at the top of Larson’s Christmas list either.
“The only help they gave us was to put a recording on their phone system talking about the event,” Larson said. “Big deal.”
Every year he worries the event will die. “If the state limits us to safe-and-sane fireworks (those that do not leave the ground), we might as well pack it in. If the Native Americans establish a casino near Washougal and are able to sell their more high-powered fireworks, you can forget about sales here.”
There’s another uncertainty next year as well. Larson will be working with four new major players: mayor and city manager of Vancouver, commander of the Vancouver Barracks and superintendent of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
And if the Fourth of July show should lapse for one year, Larson doubts it could ever be pulled back together.
Will he try to do it next year? “Yeah. Probably,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t want to see it end.”
“I’m not negative on fireworks, but I don’t like the problems they bring in the hands of unsupervised young people and I wish we didn’t have to depend so heavily on those sales.”
It’s pride that keeps Larson going, and such things as the television image of a 79-year-old bed-ridden woman who was helped to the site because she loves the show.
It’s knowing he and his volunteer army brought excitement, patriotism and identity to Vancouver.
Next year, though, he’d like a lot more help from his friends. The City of Vancouver ought to be first in line.
Tom Koenninger is vice president/editor of The Columbian.