Pyrotechnician Keith Boales runs 40th Ashland fireworks display

By Courtney Day T-G Staff Writer Published:

ImageKeith Boales was 24 when he volunteered to set off his first July Fourth fireworks show with the Ashland Jaycees. He was home from a tour in Vietnam and had been trained in explosive ordinance while in the military.

Throughout the years, safety regulations have been added for pyrotechnics displays and sponsorship of the show has changed hands -- first to the Johnny Appleseed Four-Wheel Drive Club and then to the current sponsor, Ashland Rotary Club.

But one thing that has not changed is the man behind the annual Independence Day display. This year was Boales' 40th show.

Boales said he volunteers his time each year and chips in to help pay for the display for the enjoyment of the community.

"It's a tradition," he said. "Everyone loves it."

He buys the fireworks for the show in January, he said, because he can get the best show for the price while no one else is thinking about fireworks. Prices of firework shells can range from $10 to hundreds of dollars, he said.

Larger, more expensive firework shells may produce larger explosions or may be "multiple breaks," meaning they explode two or three times once in the air.

Some are more complicated to use than others -- circles are a difficult shape to produce and blue is the toughest color to create.

Boales tries to get a variety and include crowd-pleasers like chrysanthemums, which burst and then trail down, as well as fireworks that will produce the loudest booms.

"I always like to have more than one supplier," Boales said.

These days, he buys wholesale from Melrose Pyrotechnics in Indiana and Zambelli Fireworks in Pennsylvania.

Boales knows the sellers well and said he feels Ashland gets better shows than others would be able to purchase for the same budget because of his experience and his connections in the industry.

Thursday's fireworks were electronically lit, but Boales recalls when he and the rest of crew used to light the shells by hand from two feet away.

He also remembers when larger fireworks were more common -- he once set off a 16-inch shell. Now, he doesn't use anything larger than five inches.

People don't often realize, Boales said, that the fireworks are shot 600 to 800 feet above ground. A chrysanthemum explosion might be 350 feet across and 800 feet in the air, he said.

Boales said among his memories of fireworks shows, last year's display stands out as one of the most unusual.

"It's amazing that in 40 years of doing this, the most memorable show would have been just last year," he said.

As a storm made its way toward Ashland, Boales made a call to set off what would have been a 20-minute show in only seven minutes. The effect, he said, was that the whole show felt like a finale.

"It was spectacular," Boales said, "But I don't plan on doing that again."

It takes about six to eight experienced people to run a show like Ashland's, Boales said, and all now are required to have a pyrotechnic license from the state fire marshal.

"I'm blessed with an outstanding crew," he said, adding that he is pleased that in his 40-year tenure, no one has been injured by what he describes as "a truckload of dynamite."

The crew begins preparations at 7 a.m. and works all day to set up hundreds of fireworks shells to pull of the show, which begins at dusk. Then months of planning, a day of hard work and thousands of dollars worth of fireworks culminate in a display that lasts less than half an hour.

The appreciation of the spectators makes it all worth it, Boales said.

"It matters a lot to the crew when they hear the crowd cheering," he said.

In the past, he used to run fireworks shows throughout the state, but now he only sets off Ashland's display. He plans to keep doing the show as long as he can because he loves the Ashland community.

"I have no intention of retiring from it," he said.

Courtney Day can be reached at 419-281-0581, ext. 243, or