PROVO -- Color filled the skies over Provo in the early morning hours Wednesday with the unofficial start of the Freedom Festival's Balloon Festival.
Wednesday, a group of hot air balloon enthusiasts represented the city to pay homage to first responders in police, fire and emergency medical services. Thursday, Friday and Saturday the festival will continue with balloon competitions.
Some of the emergency personnel went for a ride in the balloons Wednesday. Others donated their opportunity to a boy who had recently been diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy. Rykert Malone, 7, and his father rode in the basket with pilot Doug Cannon, courtesy of Provo firefighters. Fire departments traditionally have a relationship with muscular dystrophy patients and participate in the annual Fill the Boot campaign to help fight the disease.
If the Wednesday flight had been a competition, Cannon would have won it.
"Doug was able to take them on a beautiful ride and land on the same place where they took off," said John Wallace, director for city relations of the balloon festival.
"In April we went to his neighborhood where they had a fun run for him," he said. "We ran with him and sent a fire truck."
Lt. Matt Siufanua with the Provo Police Department said he was pleased to be recognized.
"I feel honored that they wanted to have us go up in the balloon with them," he said. "I have to admit I was afraid for my life. We were up there a long ways. It was great to get that bird's-eye perspective of Provo city. I was also able to talk to the pilot and get a better understanding about the business of flying a hot air balloon."
Pilots come from the western United States to participate in the festival, Wallace said.
Bill Talbot, the event's chairman, said the same committee has been putting it on for its 29 years of existence. He invited the public to come to Provo's Fox Field, between 200 and 300 West and about 1100 North, to watch the liftoff.
"The best part of our balloon festival is when the pilots start inflating their balloons," he said. "You are standing in the middle of the most incredible thing on the face of the earth." He encouraged viewers to get there early as the balloons lift off while the weather is still cool. The pilots start inflating the balloons shortly after 6 a.m.
Hot air balloons use air currents at various altitudes to determine their direction. As they go through the different levels, they note which way that wind is blowing and ascend or descend to go where they want. Fox Field is the best place for the event, Talbot said.
"There are so many wind currents in the valley," he said. "Some come out of the canyons. They mix right over that field. They can take a long ride to the north, west or south. If he goes to the right altitude he can find wind currents that can bring him back to that field."
That is one of the marks of the competition, which covers three days. Scores are combined for all the flights, noting how far from a target the balloons actually land. The target can be determined by a balloon called the hare, which takes off before the others and either chooses a place to land, or places an X or a beanbag on the ground that the others, called hounds, use as their target.
Talbot said he anticipated there would be 28 balloons taking part in the competition.
"We have a great, great track record," he said. "We have been very fortunate that we haven't had any accidents."
"The reason I am doing this is when I was growing up in a small town in southern Utah, people spent time and energy to make many events happen," he said. "I can't give back and thank all those wonderful people, but I can go in and involve myself in something like this. I can show the kids, grandkids and great-grandkids what it is like."
Wallace said families were important to the Freedom Festival.
"The families of the pilots have made this event," he said. "We love to celebrate freedom and families. I don't think anyone does it better than Provo."