Thomas Volunteer Fire Department Struggle with Decision to Cancel Fireworks

In 2019, local photographer Chris Reynolds positioned himself perfectly and awaited the perfect opportunity to capture this photograph of the annual fireworks display put on by the Thomas Volunteer Fire Department.

By Heather Clower
The Parsons Advocate


            The decision did not come easy for Company 40, Thomas Volunteer Fire Department, when it came to canceling the 63 annual fireworks display.  This is the first time since the event began in 1957 that this has happened.  “It was a hard decision to make,” said Joe DiBacco, Chief of the Thomas VFD.  DiBacco has been a part of the fireworks committee since 1970 and and has served as the chairman since 1982.  “We waited until the very last minute,” he said.

            There is a lot of work that goes into preparing this festive light extravaganza each year.  “Planning these fireworks starts in February,” explained DiBacco.  The crew that sets off the fireworks consists of 15 individuals, or three crews of five.  Each crew has to have one license pyrotech, which costs $20 per license.  State and federal permits must be sought and approved, which are typically complete by April.  Background checks and fingerprints must be conducted as well to order these federally regulated fireworks, or shots, which are not the same fireworks consumers can purchase legally, effective June 1 of 2006.

            When these permits are submitted to the state, the exact date of discharge must be listed in order to be approved to purchase.  If this regulation is not met, the VFD could be fined and face jail time.  The fireworks do not arrive until one to two weeks ahead of the date and are stored in a federally approved magazine.  The racks and braces take about a week to prepare and the day of the show takes hours to get ready.  “There’s a lot of work that goes into this thing,” commented DiBacco.  The permits do not receive extensions and the fireworks cannot be stored.

In 2007 at the 50 anniversary of the Thomas VFD Fireworks, Governor Manchin recognized the event with the West Virginia Jewel of the Hills Award.

            This event is paid for solely through donations received specifically for the fireworks.  Road blocks, door to door collections, mail in contributions, local businesses, and the county Parks and Recreation Board provide the budget the VFD has to put on the show.  This year, around $14,000 was set to go into the event, making it comparable to the 50 anniversary show.  “It was going to be the most expensive one,” he said.  “If we hired a company to do this show, it would cost over $30,000,” DiBacco explained, whereas these companies charge by the minute.  In addition to all of the fees, permits, licensure, and training requirements, a minimum of a one million dollar liability insurance policy must be in order.

            Even though it is nearly impossible to get even an estimated count on how many people witness the fireworks, it is definitely in excess of the maximum gathering allotment of 100 set forth by Governor Jim Justice, and social distancing would be impossible.  What DiBacco and his crew do know is it takes anywhere from two and a half to three hours for the town to completely clear after the conclusion of the show.

            Each year, the committee aims for the show to last around 45 minutes with at least two shells in the sky at a time.  The eight inch shells that extend the highest altitude cost $300 each. Each event hosts around 1,000 shots with an additional 400 set aside for the finale.  The current firework crew has been together nearly 12 years, which DiBacco proclaims is probably one of the best crews he’s had the privilege of working with over the years.  One person or even just a few could not pull off a show of this magnitude, it takes everyone working together.  He expressed the importance of teaching the younger generations in order to keep the tradition alive.  “They (former members) passed the torch onto us, we’re going to pass it on to them (the younger members),” DiBacco confirmed.  “It’s a tradition for the town and it’s a tradition for the Volunteer Fire Department and the entire county.”

            At the end of the display, the crew doesn’t get to leave their stations until after midnight.  “I haven’t seen a show in 45 years,” said DiBacco, because the show can’t be seen from the set off point.  “I enjoy seeing people in our little town,” he added.  “To me, we just like doing it, it’s a boost for our local businesses and the entire town.”  The first shots each year are always dedicated to members who have passed away.  For this year, the first shots were to be in memory of Vincent DiBacco, who was a member of the original firework committee and a VFD member for 30 years, and Stan “Champ” Sedmock, who was active in the department for a decade and voted in as a lifetime member.  “The way we look at it here, once a member, always a member,” DiBacco confirmed.  “There’s been a lot of people involved in this and that’s had a hand in it,” he added.

            With the cancelation of the event, DiBacco and the VFD are concerned for the potential improper use of consumer fireworks or illegally acquired shots.  DiBacco explained that there are different classifications of fireworks and consumers need to be aware of what they can and cannot purchase and need to thoroughly inspect the packaging.  If a firework is labeled as a 1.3g, it is illegal to possess and very unsafe.  “You’re messing with black powder, they’re dangerous there’s no doubt about it,” DiBacco stated.  “People need to understand what they’re dealing with, we don’t want a call on the fourth,” he added.

            Throughout the 50 years DiBacco has been involved with the show, there has only been one incident of a mild burn that has taken place during the show.  “We take it seriously,” he said.  In addition to ensuring the purchase of consumer appropriate fireworks, extra precautions need to be taken when setting them off.

            The funds raised for this event will be carried over and put towards the show for 2021.  In 2007 when the 50 year event took place, Governor Joe Manchin presented the Thomas VFD with the West Virginia Jewel of the Hills recognition.  With the expectation that this year would be comparable to that event and another year to fundraise and plan, the sky is literally the limit for the potential of next year’s show.

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