LAUREL — What took the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department a year to plan, weeks to raise more than $60,000 for and hours upon hours of free time to put together and set up will all go up in smoke and sparks on Friday night.
Or, more accurately, more than 13,000 puffs of smoke and bright, shimmering bursts of sparks high overhead.
That's the rough number of aerial fireworks expected to go off at the department's annual Fourth of July fireworks show, considered the largest in the state and held Friday night at Thomson Park.
"It's fun," said Kent Kulesa, LVFD assistant chief and chairman of the Fourth of July efforts. "You get to blow stuff up. Really, though, it's about the Fourth of July. You've got to do this, you've got to have something like this."
On Thursday, Laurel firefighters and their families gathered at the park, just south of Laurel High School on First Avenue, to set up the main field in preparation for Friday's 45-minute-long display.
They set up frames holding about a dozen 2-foot-tall launch tubes for the explosive shots — each containing as many as four shells wired together by hand — using stakes pounded into the ground for support. Groups of about a dozen frames each were organized into loose star shapes, with the clusters dotting the park's green grass.
"This whole field will be laid out with them," said Brian Dennis, a Laurel firefighter.
The firefighters set up the display with safety in mind. It's run electronically from a 20-foot storage container set up nearby that's been converted into a control room and the actual explosives won't be loaded into the tubes until Friday.
Once the setup is finished, nobody but a handful of specially trained firefighters will be allowed on the field with the fireworks and they won't be allowed to use phones or radios while out there.
In mid-June, the department began raising money for the event by going door-to-door and selling tickets for raffles during the event, bringing in local sponsors and through a Fill the Boot event where firefighters asked motorists to drop a few dollars into a boot.
They brought in $60,000 to $65,000 this year, almost all of which goes into the fireworks show and celebration.
"We do that all with ticket sales and some amazing, generous sponsors," Dennis said. "To do this show, it'd be at least double that were we to hire this show professionally instead of doing it ourselves."
Toward the end of the month, they'd gather after work four or five nights a week for four or five hours to prepare the fireworks, building the tubes and supports and putting together the shells for each shot.
"We're all volunteers (with the department)," Kulesa said. "We all have full-time jobs along with this."
The fireworks cap off a daylong celebration in Laurel that includes a morning pancake breakfast, a run, food, crafts and a parade that begins at 11 a.m.
It's a celebration that began more than 60 years ago as a way for the department to keep people safe for the holiday by keeping them in town and off the roads. The department initially used fireworks confiscated by the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office and it has since grown into today's version.
An estimated 18,000 people attended last year's parade, lining the streets throughout town, and Kulesa said as many as 40,000 turned up for the evening fireworks.
"It's pretty impressive," Kulesa said.
Seating will be set up in areas throughout the park, with the main viewing area on the west side. A VIP area will also be available, as will a family friendly, alcohol free section in the Laurel High bleachers to the north.
A pair of booths selling raffle tickets will also be operating.
While the show officially starts at 9 p.m., Dennis advised people to arrive early.
"We'll start when it gets dark and it's usually closer to 10 (p.m.)," he said. "We want it to be good and dark. But come in early. There's so much going on in Laurel, with the parade and everything else."