By Reggie Ellis
exeter – Generations of Exeterites have taken to Dobson field to sit under the booming firework extravaganza that punctuates the Fourth of July. And this year will be no different. Most sit with their mouths agape under the flashes of color and sparkle in the evening sky, but more interesting than the fireworks themselves is the work that drives this tradition to be carried out year after year.
Exeter is one of the last fireworks shows left in Tulare County thanks to the dedicated community servants of the Exeter Lions Club.
July 4, 2016 will mark the 71st fireworks show provided by the club’s members. The small town tradition started in 1946 when John Schultz obtained the first pyrotechnic license in California. Schultz, along with many other young men who returned to town after World War II, renewed their licenses, purchased the fireworks and lit the mortars for the show for 50 years. A mural honoring Schultz’s dedication to the fireworks show was painted on E Street in 1999. Mickey Hirni, who has been a Lions Club member for 40 years, said Schultz and the club wanted to so something patriotic for their town.
“The town was full of 18-22 year old men who had just come back from the war and were extremely patriotic,” said the 81-year-old Hirni. “These were the people I looked up to. These were our heroes.”
Schultz oversaw the show until 1996, when he passed the torch to Ben Hagans and Chris Brewer, and passed away in 2001. Hagans and Brewer handled pyrotechnic responsibilities until 2002 when Paul Evans took over. Hagans, who moved to Exeter in 1974, said
Just as freedom isn’t free, free fireworks show aren’t free either. As longtime Lions treasurer, Hirni said the fireworks show used to cost between $1,000 and $2,500 has now skyrocketed to more than $15,000 for the 30-minute extravaganza.
That cost doesn’t even account for the training and certification courses for the firing crew as well as the head pyrotechnic. Hirni, who worked on the firing crew for 25 years, said anyone who lit even one mortar was required to get certified by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Hagans said it takes a crew of about 15 dedicated volunteers to run the show and lit more than 650 mortars into the night sky. Many pay for the permitting out of their own pocket just to have the privilege of partaking in their town’s tradition.
“There has always been a desire among the club’s members to give back to the community,” Hagans said. “We rarely have trouble finding volunteers to help run the event.”
At 87-years-old, Hagans can still recall the exact numbers of fireworks mortars that were set up for each show. He also remembers what it was like to train on military mortars in World War II.
“In some instances, lighting fireworks is more dangerous than military mortars,” said Hagans, who holds one of the earliest pyrotechnic licenses still in activity. “Military mortars extend 4 to 6 feet in the air, easy enough to duck below. But the fireworks were only about 2 feet tall, so no matter what you did you felt the concussion when it was fired.”
Hirni said safety precautions have dramatically increased over the years. In the early days of the show, gloves were optional. Those lighting the fuses are now required to wear a helmet, face shield, ear plugs, fire resistant coats and steel-toed boots.
In order to offset some of the Club’s cost, the Lions still ask for donations at the Dobson Field show. Hirni said the donations have never covered the cost of the fireworks, but it does reduce the amount of funds the club needs to raise. The Lions Club also requires those in attendance leave their ice chest at home and purchase concessions sold onsite. This year’s fireworks show begins at approximately 8:55 p.m. at Dobson Field on Rocky Hill Drive in Exeter.
Exeter native Bill Capps, who joined the Lions Club in 1954, said he is still amazed that a service club in a town the size of Exeter is able to afford the fireworks, training and permitting for 70 of the town’s 105 years.
“The guys from the World War II generation, there is no questioning their patriotism, but today there is not as much patriotism in our communities,” said the 91-year-old Capps. “But Exeter really emphasizes tradition and keeps things going that are over 50 years old. It’s what makes this town great.”