Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Tom Bates is the brains behind the fireworks that burst over Seattle on July 4

For a guy who likes to blow stuff up, Tom Bates can come across as rather reserved. But every Fourth of July he’s a total blast, as the person in charge of lighting up the sky over Lake Union for Seattle’s yearly fireworks celebration.

Bates is production manager for Canby, Ore.-based Western Display Fireworks, the company that puts on the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Seafair Summer Fourth. On a barge just off Gas Works Park, Bates and his crew were readying 10,000 pounds of explosives on Wednesday afternoon for a show that will last 20 minutes on Thursday night.

Fully choreographed to a musical score that takes months to produce, the show is regularly considered one of the best in the United States.

Standing in the middle of a lake, with the Seattle skyline to the south and float planes buzzing by overhead, Bates told GeekWire about new flourishes to look for in this year’s show, which holiday is his favorite, what he thinks of fireworks fail videos, and just how geeky he gets over making fireworks celebrations a success.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Tom Bates:

Tom Bates, left, of Western Display Fireworks, talks Fourth of July with GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

GeekWire: Tell us a little bit about what to expect in this year’s show, what’s going to be different from last year?

Tom Bates: It’s the same layout as last year and how we differ from year to year is we just switch the product out. And what dictates that is the soundtrack. This year we do have new items. We have a shell in the show that hasn’t been in this specific show before, which is a jellyfish. We just haven’t really had an opportunity to shoot that shell with the proper song. There’s a song in this year’s soundtrack that worked perfectly for it. It’s basically a half segmented ball shell and it’s got legs off of it, so it looks like a jellyfish.

Another new item that I’m really excited about is called a ghost mod. They’re lower level items. What they do is I’ll curtain, so they go from the center out and they actually changed from red to green to blue. They’ll change color in the air and they’re a mine effect, so they’ll be sweeping across the barge and they’ll be changing color. It’s a unique effect and it’s a newer effect in the industry. So we’re excited to have it in the show this year.”

Fireworks shells and mortars on a barge on Seattle’s Lake Union. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

GW: We geek out on everything, it’s not just technology. You can get pretty heavy in the weeds here on the tech involved or the music or some of the various displays. What do you nerd out on the most when it comes to your job and this profession as a whole?

Bates: Honestly, it’s the evolution of the industry. They come out with new items every year. We travel to fireworks competitions, we go to fireworks shows when we’re not doing fireworks shows. The competition shows we see give us ideas and you see something new and you want to try it. A lot of the stuff that’s evolved in this show over years is things I’ve learned from watching different people do stuff. We’re constantly looking at videos. After this show is shot, we watch it and watch it and watch it and “what can we do better next year?” So it’s something that is certainly a passion that we spend a lot of time on, at a definite geek level.

A worker preps a shell for Thursday’s fireworks show in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

GW: Is July Fourth your favorite holiday?

Bates: It’s actually Halloween. The Pumpkins, you know, it’s my favorite time of year. It gets dark early, you get to go to bed early … good times.

GW: Do you light off fireworks at all beyond this display?

Bates: Yeah, I personally shoot about 30 shows a year. Our company does shows all year round. We do stuff New Year’s, we do stuff for weddings, graduations, anything you can think of we do fireworks for.

The fireworks are launched from a barge off Gas Works Park. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

GW: How did you get into this line of work, did you like firecrackers as a kid?

Bates: It’s kind of a wild story. I just kind of fell into it. I come from a construction background. I used to frame houses when I was in my early 20s and I knew a guy that worked for Western Display Fireworks. … I ran into him. I’m a wrestler, he was a wrestling coach, and he’s like, “Hey, you want a summer job?” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” So I quit framing and then started a summer job … been here 15 years later.

GW: If you and I were to go camping, could I expect you to bring any sort of fireworks along? Would you build a bonfire that just blew my mind?

Bates: No, probably not. I’d probably just want to sit there and have a few cold ones and hang out. That’s pretty much it.

Thursday’s show will feature 10,000 pounds of explosives going off over the course of 20 minutes. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

GW: Tell me what a perfect show looks like to you, and maybe a not-so-perfect scenario.

Bates: The perfect show? It’s hard to do a perfect show where everything does exactly what it’s supposed to, because you’re dealing with so many factors, even internally inside of one ball shell. You’re dealing with a lift charge, you’re hoping that lift charge lights a time fuse when it’s supposed to right when it leaves the mortar. You’re hoping that time fuse is a proper length. You’re hoping that it goes to the burst charge in time to break in that prescribed time in the sky. So there’s a lot of factors and when you have this many shells on a barge … it’s never 100 percent perfect, but it’s sometimes pretty darn close. And we just do the best we can to make it that way.

I rarely get to look up at the sky when the show’s happening, but I could pick something out that I know is not supposed to be there at that specific time, because I could usually hear the soundtrack from [Gas Works Park].

GW:  I spend a lot of time on Instagram, Youtube. Do you ever watch videos of what can go wrong with people and fireworks?

Bates: Yeah, there’s all those fail videos and stuff. I’ve actually watched them before fireworks shows and gotten a good laugh. I don’t know, you see all sorts of crap and usually you don’t see the professional people doing it. Some guy’s buying stuff from a stand somewhere and doing something stupid. It’s kind of silly what some people do, for sure.

GW: I think you need a “Don’t try this at home” sticker on your truck.

Bates: Yeah, or just have it tattooed somewhere on my body. I don’t know.

Fireworks over Lake Union in Seattle last year. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

GW: You ever get bored of fireworks and just stare at your phone while the show’s happening?

Bates: Oh, no. No. I mean, it’s an odd thing. You’re on a platform in the middle of the lake and all these explosions are happening. The last thing I’m concerned about is my phone. You never get bored, it’s always exciting. I get really nervous, it’s just the way I am. It’s kind of unnatural to be sitting here with all this crap going on around you, but it is what it is.

GW: It’s our nation’s birthday, Tom, there’s a lot to celebrate.

Bates: Yes it is, that’s very true. USA.

Reserved tickets for Gas Works Park and Seafair’s new 21-and-over location at Lake Union Park, are available here. Tickets range from $20 – $60. General admission to Gas Works Park is free. Gates open at noon at Gas Works and 3 p.m. at Lake Union Park. Fireworks begin at 10:15 pm.

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