Day in the Work Life: Rocket man

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TESS VIGELAND: We are a nation of pyros. Evidence? Last year the US imported more than 120,000 tons of fireworks from China alone. Here in California of course we can't get a wick's worth of all that bang for our bucks. Fireworks are illegal. But with the Fourth of July upon us, we'll have plenty of chances to bask in the red glare of rockets set off by professionals. On this week's edition of A Day in the Work Life we meet a Golden State pyrotechnician.

JULIAN HEMENAS: It's going to be very spectacular. Make a lot of noise. They're going to hum. They're going to dart and they're going to whistle. And they're going to boom. My name is Julian Hemenas and I'm a licensed pyrotechnic operator. I perform fireworks displays.

I got interested in fireworks with my neighborhood friends. There was a fireworks stand in our neighborhood. We could purchase sparklers and these roman candles and these little snakes and worms that you'd light and they'd squiggle on the ground. And they were fun. They were exciting. And I've always, you know, wanted to go to the next level. And I'd seen the professional fireworks displays. I've been in the parks where they have them. And I said wow, that's really exciting. I want to do that.

It requires a two-year training period. You have to work a minimum of five shows and get these other licensed operators to sign off on you. I've been a licensed operator in this state for 35 years. Dramatically, fireworks has changed for the better, especially with electronic firing systems and computers. They make the shows a lot more dramatic. The type of fireworks that's being used today it's changed. You'll see an aerial shell go up and open and it makes a smiley face or a star. I like the noisy shells. I like the shells that move and dive and dart and have motion to them. Bang, bang, bang, bang.

We need to be in a protected area all the time and away from most of the fireworks during the show because if we get a wild spark or something that product will go off. It's sensitive to impact, static, flame. It'll blow your leg off.

The pay varies from show to show. It's based on the type of show. If it was a manual fire show, if there's a lot of digging or trenching. Some of the higher end shows, they'll pay between $5,000 and $10,000 to the operator. But you're talking about a show that's going to take two or three days to put together. Maybe a 20 minute display and it's going to take you another day to take all the equipment apart, put it back in the truck and ship it back to the company. So it sounds good but there's a lot of labor involved.

I'm retired at this time and I just do this periodically. because I just like to stay busy with it and it's a lot of fun. This is one of my proudest moments. Last year, July 5th morning the Los Angeles Times. And right smack in the middle of the front page is the fireworks display that I did for the city of Long Beach. It's beautiful. I'm going to frame it, put it in my living room.

This is a different type of work and the pleasure we get with doing this all the time, there's always so much excitement and adrenalin going. We just enjoy every show that we do. They've all been good.

VIGELAND: Our conversation with Julian was recorded in 2004.

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