Mike Wagner admits he gets bored with traditional firework shows. Randomly shooting shells in the air has been done for years and can’t hold a Roman candle to what’s possible now.
You could say that technology has made him into somewhat of a fireworks snob.
The owner of Extreme Pyrotechnics and his team painstakingly choreograph their firework displays to within 1/100 of a second, taking into account the time from launching to exploding.
They also use large propane tanks to launch fireballs in the air. And the grand finale packs an even bigger punch with the so-called "gas bomb" that leaves a mushroom cloud.
Mansfield-based Extreme Pyrotechnics displays aren’t just firework shows--their pyro musicals.
"I don’t like to watch it any other way now," Wagner said. "For every one minute of show it probably takes three to four hours of choreography. We made it our specialty. We do things a lot different than other people do."
Locally, the company does the July 4th show on Panther Island in Fort Worth, the Mansfield Hometown Holidays, the Rockin’ 4th of July in Mansfield and the fireworks for Texas Christian University football games, just to name a few.
Wagner and his crew crammed 1,300 firework elements into the five-minute Hometown Holidays fireworks show at City Hall Friday night.
Wagner let the Mansfield News-Mirror get an up-close look at how they prepared for the Hometown Holidays show.
Each firework launch is entered into the computer with a time code so the software knows when to launch it. It’s synced with the music so the fireworks explode to the beat, making a colorful dance in the sky.
They launched the big artillery shells at the far end of the field behind City Hall, using three-inch or smaller shells.
For every inch of shell size, 100 feet of buffer space is needed, meaning the Mansfield fireworks should be launched 300 feet from spectators.
"A three-inch shell here is going to look huge because you’re so close to it," he said.
For larger shows where they have more distance from the crowd, like the one in Fort Worth, they can use up to 10-inch shells. That show takes 15 people a week to set up.
For Mansfield’s show, close proximity fireworks are launched from the roof of City Hall and the Mansfield Public Library. A Mansfield fire truck was on-hand to carry the equipment to the roof. These smaller fireworks act as accents for the larger shells and are safe to launch within 15 feet of people.
Then, there are the propane flame throwers, the only part of the show that Wagner manually controls--the rest is software controlled. Wagner remembers the days when people would wear fireproof suits and light the fireworks manually. He likes it better this way.
Mansfield’s finale included three gas bombs, a mixture of fuels that launch at the end.
"It rattles people’s houses. It shuts 911 down whenever we do it and leaves 150 to 200-foot mushroom cloud," Wagner said. "Some people think it’s not part of the show, that it’s a mistake. It’s not. That’s why it’s on the front page of our website."
He used three for the Mansfield show. Fort Worth’s firework show had 28.
Mansfield officials praised Extreme Pyrotechnics for creating an amazing experience for the city twice a year.
"I'm always on the lookout for new or unique features to bring to our city events, but one thing we never change is the fireworks shows, both at the Rockin' 4th of July and our Hometown Holidays tree lighting in December," said Angie Henley, cultural arts and special events supervisor. "Our residents have come to expect the amazing, and Mike and his team always deliver. I'd like to think it's a little bit of hometown pride. He always makes sure our show is the best!"
Wagner’s penchant for fireworks and blowing things up goes back to his childhood and he never outgrew it.
He was legendary for putting on large firework shows as he got older and in 2009, he founded Extreme Pyrotechnics. He puts on a spectacular show at his Rendon home, taking advantage of the rural setting to launch massive 12-inch shells.
Extreme Pyrotechnics’ reputation has grown with shows in 16 states, including about 50 shows during the July 4th holiday alone. That first week of July, the company adds about 1,000 seasonal employees.
"We never do the same show twice," Wagner said. "Even if it’s a different location, there are people who follow us around."
While his office is in Mansfield, the actual fireworks are stored at an undisclosed location outside the Metroplex. He spends about three weeks in China every year, meeting with suppliers and testing new products.
In many ways, Wagner is living the dream, getting paid to blow things up and pushing envelope of what’s possible in firework synchronization.
But there’s a serious side to what he does and safety is a top priority.
"A lot of money, a lot of liability and a lot of insurance," he said. "I’ve been doing it for a long time and just went gangbusters with it."