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Tommy Bolack says his show has special meaning this year

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FARMINGTON — For many years, the annual July 4 fireworks show that Tommy Bolack presents from the bluffs south of Farmington has served as the region's most visible and highly anticipated celebration of American independence and freedom.

But this year's event will take on added meaning for its organizer. Bolack said he is dedicating the show, which will begin at approximately 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 4, to his longtime friend J.C. Keith, a Farmington resident who died June 12 at the age of 92.

"I knew him since I was a little kid," Bolack said, adding that he also was good friends with Keith's wife, Imogene, who died in 2010. "He called me son, and I adopted him as a second or third father."

Bolack recalled how Keith enjoyed visiting the Bolack family's B-Square Ranch and going fishing.

"He was a real, real special friend," Bolack said.

As preparations for the fireworks show continued earlier this week, Bolack said he was a little worried about the weather forecast, which indicated a slight chance of showers on the night of the event.

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"Bad as we need the rain, it's the only day all year I don't want it to rain," he said.

Even if it does rain, Bolack said the show would go the next night — or the night after. He said he puts too much time, money and effort into the event to let it be spoiled by bad weather, explaining that preparations for the show typically begin six weeks in advance.

The fireworks show lasts between 35 and 40 minutes and features more than 1,000 shots that are more than 2.5 inches in diameter, Bolack said. The biggest shell, which he fires approximately halfway through the show, comes from a 16-inch mortar.

He takes a hands-on approach to the show, designing or modifying many of the shots himself. He said he has a Class B license from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which permits him to handle such large fireworks.

Bolack said the mortars are typically set up at the firing site on the morning of July 3 each year, with the rest of the materials being set up beginning at dawn on July 4 and continuing throughout the day. He noted he is required to remain on site with the materials throughout that period to ensure their proper handling and use.

Keep reading: Drought conditions prompt Farmington to limit types of fireworks that can be used and sold

"It's not just something where you haul it up to the site, dump it and light it," he said.

Bolack described himself as a "thump junkie" and said he loves being in the middle of the firing site during the show.

"It's the lights; it's the noise," he said, trying to describe his favorite part of the experience. "You can feel the ground shake. You can feel the concussions. Of course, you're getting a crook in your neck from looking straight up. But when that 16-incher goes off, it nearly fills the sky."

Bolack estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 people watch the show each year, and he said nearly any location in south Farmington or in Crouch Mesa will offer a good vantage point. But he encouraged viewers to find a site close enough where they could enjoy the full sensory experience of the show, not just its visuals.

"The noise is half of it," he said. "It resonates through that canyon. There's a lot of rumbling and echoing. … It definitely sounds like we're fighting a battle."

In years past, many viewers of the event have parked on the right of way along U.S. Highway 64 to watch the show. But that area is under construction for a widening project this year.

Read more: COVID-19 pandemic takes toll on local Fourth of July celebrations

Jayme Harcrow, the public information officer for the San Juan County Sheriff's Office, noted the highway is patrolled by the New Mexico State Police, the agency that is responsible for traffic enforcement on the roadway. State police did not respond to two queries from The Daily Times about whether parking would be prohibited on the right of way during the show.

But the Sheriff's Office is discouraging motorists from parking in the construction zone and will respond to calls from dispatch about anyone who parks in an unsafe manner.

Georgette Allen, the public information officer for the City of Farmington, said Bolack's fireworks show is a private event, and the city does not provide parking for it.

A smaller-scale Freedom Days celebration

Also taking place this weekend is Farmington's Freedom Days celebration, which has been pared down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The celebration will get underway at approximately 9:25 p.m. Friday, July 3 with the city's annual fireworks display from Sullivan Hill west of the intersection of College Boulevard and East 30th Street.

Organizers emphasize that the San Juan College campus will not be open during the show, so viewers who have parked there in the past will need to find another vantage point this year. But the show will be simulcast on radio station KWYK-FM 94.9.

Tonya Stinson, executive director of the Farmington Convention & Visitors Bureau, which organizes the city's Freedom Days celebration, said she was especially thankful to the sponsors of the fireworks show — Citizens Bank, Dugan Production, the City of Farmington, the San Juan County Commission and Solga & Jakino PA.

"That show is important," she said. "To find the sponsors each year is tough. We greatly appreciate these sponsors that came on board."

The annual Electric Light Parade presented by the Farmington Rotary Club is taking place in a different setting and format this year, though it will take place at its customary time of 9 p.m. on July 4. The event will be held on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington, as a drive-thru event with stationary floats.

Alicia Davis, one of the organizers of the event, said June 29 some entries were still coming in, but she was hoping the parade would attract approximately 30 entries, although she said the changes this year made it difficult to know how many groups would participate.

"This year has been a really hard for everybody," she said.

The parade will follow the route through the college campus that motorists typically use for the college's luminarias display during the holidays. Drivers will approach the parade from Butler Avenue west of the campus, turning east on Sunrise Parkway and following that to the campus. After driving through the parade, they will exit south on College Avenue to 30th Street.

Davis said parade viewers must be in automobiles to be admitted and must stay in their vehicles throughout the parade. She estimated it would take 10 to 15 minutes to drive through the parade route at an approximate speed of 5 mph.

The entries themselves are likely to be different this year, as well, as event organizers adhere to strict social distancing standards. Davis said each float can only have two people, including a driver, stationed on it, and they must maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from each other.

There will not be any marching bands taking part this year, and no one will be allowed to pass out candy to children, Davis said, because of the COVID-19 restrictions.

More: Meetings roundup: Farmington considers firework restrictions amid drought conditions

Despite those changes, Davis said she is optimistic the parade will be well attended.

"Hopefully, we can pull this off and have a great Fourth of July," she said. "I think it's something our community needs to have."

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Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.

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