EXETER – It was 242 years ago that Americans declared their independence from England and marked the occasion with the firing of muskets and cannons into the sky. Today, the nighttime American landscape is still illuminated each Fourth of July by bursts of fire in the air.
It is one of the few holidays that Americans have celebrated since the dawn of the country and nowhere in Tulare County is the tradition of fireworks on July 4 more fused together than in Exeter.
The Exeter Lions Club will again light the night above Exeter at dusk with a Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza. Now in its 73rd year, the show is one of only two fireworks shows held on July 4 in Tulare County, is the longest running show in Tulare County and is still fired by hand. Lions Club member Paul Evans said crews working the Exeter show hand-light 450 aerial mortars from Dobson Field that can be seen throughout the town.
“The mortars have been lit by hand since [the Lions Club] started the show after World War II,” Evans said. “A lot of professional crews like working it because it’s the only show where they can get that kind of experience.”
It’s just one of the many things that make this Exeter tradition unique, including the man who runs it. Paul Evans might be the only Englishman to celebrate Independence Day more adamantly than most Americans. Evans arrived in America when he was 26 years old and fell in love with his adopted country and the holiday celebrating its separation from his homeland.
“Fourth of July is a tremendous American tradition and one of the few that you can trace back to the beginning,” Evans said. “And if we aren’t careful, it will die out.”
Evans said his British upbringing has probably done more to intensify his interest in the holiday than if he had been born here. He said coming from a country that has so many long-held, historic traditions, he said he enjoys being part of the Lions Club that works to preserve the few national traditions that Americans have left.
“There are a lot of regulations that have increased in the last few years and these traditions will fade if we let them,” he said.
Evans was the last club member to oversee the show. A licensed pyrotechnician, Evans supervised the aerial fireworks at Dobson Field for 14 years until two years ago when the club turned over the event to Zanbelli, a professional fireworks company that Exeter had purchased its fireworks from for decades. Evans said the decision was made following July 4, 2015 when he was preparing to retire from work and most of his crew was ready to retire from the heat.
“Two-thirds of the crew came to me and said they were getting too old for this,” Evans said. “It’s really a lot of work and it’s done in the hottest part of the year.”
The lack of younger people to carry on the torch for the show is not the only obstacle to keeping the tradition alive. Evans said regulations have forced the club to push crowds further from the show, purchase expensive safety gear and extensive background checks for the crews, and skyrocketed the cost of insuring the event. Liability insurance for the event has increased the cost of the event by $5,000 just in the last five years. That was the primary reason for hiring Zanbelli to run the pyrotechnics and why most larger shows are now done with electronic firing mechanisms.
“Eventually, regulations will force everyone to light them using a computer but at the moment we still light them by hand,” Evans said. “That’s kind of a tradition itself.”
Evans said the high cost of putting on a 30-minute fireworks show shut down similar shows in Porterville, Reedley and Visalia, before the latter was brought back two years ago. It forced other cities like Woodlake and Tulare to move their shows to July 3rd, when they are less expensive to contract out.
“I’m sure insurance costs will continue to increase to $20,000 in the next five years,” Evans said. “The community is going to have to provide some financial support to ensure this tradition continues.”
This year the Lions Club sold VIP passes to people wanting a front row seat to the show as well as sponsorships, but will be accepting donations for the event year round. Any donations received for the show will be put into a special fund that can only be spent on the show. Any unused funds from this year will be used for future shows. To donate, contact Lion Marlene Sario by emailing [email protected] or calling 559-280-3726.