Crystal Schick/Yukon News file Fireworks framed by trees with Christmas lights explode over Shipyards Park on a tepid 2018 New Year’s Eve in Whitehorse.

Firework maestros brighten up the Whitehorse sky

‘For us it’s an art form’

It all started with a few friends getting together for some backyard fireworks with friends and family.

Now it’s a much anticipated tradition lighting up the Whitehorse sky each Dec. 31.

Warren Zakus and his wife Kiara Adams are the producers behind the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display.

As the Midnight Sun Fireworks team, they also traveled to Quebec and won the Fête du Lac des Nations competition in 2017 and will be taking their show on the road again in 2020 to compete.

“It just kind of grew,” Zakus said in a Dec. 19 interview as he recalled the early days producing those first fireworks shows.

As for when the shows started, Zakus said “around” 15 years ago, but couldn’t put a precise date on it.

What he does remember though is going into the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous offices on Main Street with the others he had been putting on the more informal fireworks displays with to see about putting on a larger show for all to enjoy during the annual festival in February. Zakus and his friends took a pyrotechnics course that was being offered in Haines Junction to get ready for Rendezvous and the rest is history.

“We said ‘we can make it happen,’” he recalled of that meeting with Rendezvous.

After that first Rendezvous show, the City of Whitehorse expressed interest in a New Year’s Eve production.

“It’s grown since then,” Zakus said.

For Zakus, Adams and the approximately 40 other volunteers who make it happen, the show is similar to a painting or sculpture an artist might display in a gallery.

“For us it’s an art form,” he said. “The sky is our canvas.”

Like all great pieces of art, there is considerable time put into the finished product.

As Zakus explained, the design of the New Year’s Eve fireworks display begins in October with himself and Adams taking to their computer to come up with what the show will look like. It’s during that process the couple figures out exactly what fireworks need to be ordered and the timing for the display.

The New Year’s Eve show is a combination of hand-fired and electrically-fired pyrotechnics and the combination of the two means there’s no dead air — there’s always something for spectators to see in the sky over downtown Whitehorse.

After the show has been designed, the fireworks order is put in to their supplier — Arch Angel Fireworks of Winnipeg.

They arrive by ground — labelled as dangerous goods — and are stored until the big day.

Then on Dec. 31, it’s a full day of work to trek things up to the site off of Long Lake Road, a process that involves getting there by snow machine after the road ends, and set everything up.

“I can’t say enough about our crew,” Zakus said, pointing out some of the crew take the day off work without pay to help get the show ready. Others donate the use of their snow machines (not to mention the gas it takes to run the machines) to get everything to the site, a spot Zakus describes as ideal for a fireworks display.

“By far the site is one of the best,” Zakus said.

It overlooks the Yukon River and downtown allowing for great viewing from many spots around town. The large amount of space also allows for a lot of freedom in how shows are designed, he said, citing the most challenging part of it all being the lack of road access.

That said, securing a lease with the city and Yukon government to occupy the space in the past year has helped.

It has allowed the crews to place a shipping container on the site for storing gear. The fireworks themselves are not stored there and when there are fireworks on the site there are always crew members present.

Once everything is at the site, the crew sets to work getting ready for the 8 p.m. show time, making sure everything is set to be displayed at the right time.

And then with a bang, the sky is lit and the performance begins.

“It’s fun to watch,” Zakus said, adding that one of the biggest highlights is hearing the cheers from downtown when the approximately 12-minute show comes to an end.

“It’s really rewarding,” he said.

The Rendezvous fireworks show is not planned to go ahead in 2020 due to a lack of sponsorship, but in recent years it has been a pyro-musical.

The first musical was done as part of the Dec. 31, 2013 show in order to get ready for Rendezvous’ 50th anniversary in February 2014.

“Nobody knew,” Zakus said. The crew used it as a practice run to make sure the big Rendezvous show could happen as planned.

It did and Rendezvous became known for hosting the musical display with viewers tuned in to the radio to see the fireworks in time to music.

The larger show has been a three-day process involving more equipment as the fireworks are automatically set off as they’re programmed to the music.

With fireworks on-site three days ahead of the performance, crew members have camped out on the site with wall tents and gear also lugged up to the site off Long Lake Road.

Again, Zakus praised the crew members who volunteer their time, and have stayed multiple nights to ensure Whitehorse residents get to take in a good fireworks display.

And while Zakus and Adams continue work planning their productions and are making plans to compete nationally again in 2020, they have also dedicated their time to getting the training needed so that they can train others in the art of pyrotechnics. The couple hosted their first course earlier this year with both Whitehorse and Carmacks residents taking part. Zakus said they hope to host the course once or twice a year in the future.

That could help build the local crew as well as provide training opportunities for those wanting to put on or be part of displays in other communities.

For now though, the focus is on getting ready for New Year’s Eve with the fireworks display set to be staged at 8 p.m.

While the work of Zakus, Adams and their crew is fully volunteer, the city budgets $10,000 with Softball Yukon also providing $1,500 for the fireworks, shipping and other costs.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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