HARRISBURG — Happy birthday, America. Don't worry, after 50 years, Hubert Christensen has plenty of experience lighting your candles.
Christensen, who turns 74 this year, works for Hayworth Seed Co. Century farm family* and has been volunteering with Harrisburg Fire and Rescue since the fall of 1965.
Today, the firefighter and emergency medical technician will oversee his 50th fireworks show for the Harrisburg July Fourth Celebration. That event itself is marking its 65th consecutive year.
It was a natural choice for Christensen to become a firefighter. His father, Ben, and two brothers already were part of the department and the town needed volunteers. "I thought it would help the community," he said.
As for the fireworks, Ben Christensen was already helping, so in the summer of '66, Hubert joined in. "I used to help my dad blow stumps and I just kind of enjoyed watching things go," he explained.
He sat out just one year after that, helping instead on the other side of the river during his second or third season with the district, he's not sure which. But otherwise, he's been there ever since.
Firework shows were very different in those early days, Christensen remembered. Nobody had any rules about how far away you had to be from the crowd. No one required a license to shoot off the big shells. Want a beer or two before lighting the fuses? Sure, pass them around.
But in Harrisburg, at least, no one ever had any close calls. And no one's been hurt while Christensen and the other firefighters have been on the job.
These days, rules are much more strict. Shell size determines the distance the show must be set away from a crowd, for instance: 300 feet away for a 3-inch shell, 400 for a 4-inch, etc. The Fire Department always has an engine standing by, just in case.
Christensen has a pyrotechnician's license that he must renew every three years, taking classes to make sure he's up to date on laws and regulations. And forget about alcohol: Christensen can smell you coming, and if there's even a hint, you're out.
"We've gotten a lot safer than what it used to be," he said.
Equipment has changed, too. "When we first started, nobody ever thought about ear protection or anything like that," Christensen said. They do now — and lighters make sure to wear full firefighter helmets with the face shield down.
In recent years, it's been tougher to find the funding to put on a good show. Rhonda Giles, co-chair of the Harrisburg Festival and Events Association, said volunteers start planning for the next Fourth celebration about a week after the first one wraps up.
In the days when factories such as Safari RV and Monaco Coach fueled the area's economy, it was easier to find the cash, Giles said. Ten big sponsors were all that were needed for a show. Now, at a couple hundred dollars each, she needs to find 30 or more.
The community is supportive, however, and the committee usually is able to find the $13,000 to $14,000 it needs to get everything ready for the festivities. The fireworks alone cost about $9,500, Giles said, and the rest goes for setup, Popsicles, live music, obstacle courses, prizes for children's games and other incidentals.
"We want everything that’s provided by our committee to be provided free of charge to whoever attends," she said. “It's just a community thing, and we're trying to provide something that all families can go and enjoy regardless of what their life situation is today.”
That includes the fireworks show, which is visible to everyone in town, no charge. Each year, people drive up from Eugene and down from Albany to see it light up the night.
The early shows were hand-loaded, Christensen remembered. The department would set up two banks' worth of shells with six shells per bank. The lighters would set off the first bank, and as they moved to the second, someone would come around behind them and load the first bank with new shells.
In contrast, everything today is set before the show begins. The firefighters measure out the setup area, the city digs a trench and the firefighters set up the racks. On show day, Western Fireworks Display delivers the goods and the Harrisburg team gets to work putting them in place.
One thing hasn't changed, however. While some cities contract with Western Fireworks or similar agencies to handle the whole show, Harrisburg firefighters still put on their own.
Christensen said he'd just as soon be the one to work with the property owners who allow the annual setup on their land. He likes the people he works with — these days, the crew includes his son, Mike, 39, who has been helping since age 14 — and he's grateful to Junction City, in whose district the show actually takes place, which always stands by with an engine.
And, he said, "I enjoy it. I like the ones that make the more noise."
Nor is he stepping down from the shows anytime soon. "I'm going to be doing that for quite a while."
*Editor's note: Christensen's place of employment was incorrect in the print edition of this story.