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July Fourth fireworks chief sees himself as an artist in the sky

Photo: Paul Chinn / Photos By Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

When talking about his work as a pyrotechnician, Jeff Thomas is quick to address the misconceptions.

“Still have all my parts,” he chuckled, holding up his hands as evidence.

Having spent the past 41 years launching fireworks over the Bay Area, Thomas is just as quick when it comes to talking about the explosive craft he describes as an art form. As he and his crew with Pyro Spectaculars by Souza prepared Friday for their biggest show of the year — the Fourth of July spectacular over San Francisco — Thomas spoke of an artist’s process of lighting up the sky and an entertainer’s vision for dazzling millions.

“We’re painting the sky with color and effects and pyrotechnic devices,” he said, as crews loaded the explosive shells and mortars onto a barge at Pier 50 in San Francisco. “The way you send it up in the air to match the feel of the music, the different sequences you choose, it’s very much an art form, and you try to outdo yourself every year.”

Planning for next year

The 25-minute show, set to begin along the Embarcadero at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, culminates a year of planning and testing, Thomas said.

“We pretty much begin planning this show the day after,” he said. “All throughout this year, we’ll get the orders placed, they start getting shipped over, we do testing of the products, see what they look like, get a feel for them — and that fills our palette of paint for the next year.”

Saturday’s show will feature 10,000 effects, with “every color you can think of and every shape you can imagine,” he said.

Much has changed in the industry during the time that Thomas has been putting together the fireworks shows. What used to be just random effects fired here and there into the sky is now charted on computer software, with technicians taking into consideration how high to shoot them, whether to compensate for the fog line and when to bring out the big guns.

With fireworks, “it’s easy to entertain,” Thomas said. “They’re great on their own. But this just allows us to take the art form to a higher level. It’s not just about making noise.”

‘Hurry up, let’s go’

Many of the dozens of people sweating in the sun as they loaded the barge Friday said they shared Thomas’ passion for the craft.

“I was always the kid saying, ‘Hurry up, let’s go, I can hear them!'” said Lisa Conley, an operator for the show. “I always wanted to participate in making this experience for people.”

Saturday’s show will be 27-year-old Alex Jessup’s first foray into the pyrotechnics industry.

“I’m nervous because it’s my first show, but I’m excited,” he said. “My mom is nervous, but I told her I’d take pictures.”

Though he never expected to participate in a show, he said he is happy for the experience.

“As a kid, you say, ‘I want to do that,’ but you don’t really expect that it’s going to happen,” Jessup said. “I’ve always been the one watching, and now I get to see what goes into it.”

Thomas said viewers should expect some surprises in Saturday’s show, which he is dedicating to his mentor, Al Souza, who died this year.

‘We are entertainers’

“There are a whole lot of people besides myself that are working on this stuff, and there’s a sense of accomplishment,” Thomas said. “We are entertainers for that 25 minutes and although we’re behind the scenes, not the ones up in the sky doing the dancing, it’s a good feeling knowing people are enjoying what we’re doing.”

They won’t have much time to celebrate once their work is done Saturday — Thomas says as soon as the show is over, the crew is focused on cleanup. And then the next day, the planning begins again.

And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I can’t sing, I can’t dance, but I’m able to entertain,” Thomas said. “Each show is different and unique. I get to change it up and put some of my style into it. I enjoy it and I can do it, so I will keep doing it.”

Vivian Ho is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: vho@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @VivianHo