FIREWORKS HAVE been associated with Independence Day since the very first one. John Adams penned a letter on July 3, 1776, saying future generations should celebrate the event with illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, and a year later Philadelphians staged a display that began and concluded with 13 rockets one for each of the original colonies. Since then, the nation s fireworks industry has grown to about $945 million, as of 2009, nearly double what it was a decade earlier. Nowadays, enjoying the whiz-bang and sparkle is an annual event for millions.
But they don t come cheap: The largest shows can cost $500,000, not including security or cleanup. In the wake of the recession and budget cuts, cash-strapped localities from Chicago to North Providence, R.I., have scaled back or canceled July Fourth displays. Eager to save the tradition, some communities took action: The city of Delaware, Ohio, for example, turned to individual and corporate donors, while residents of Laguna Beach, Calif., planned a fund-raiser with live music and a silent auction. It s a grass-roots effort, says Laguna Board of Realtors Treasurer Michael Gosselin, who organized the event.
Illustrations by Ryan Heshka>
DESPITE THE significant role fireworks have played in American history and culture, it might surprise you to learn that there are virtually no fireworks being manufactured in the U.S., says John Rogers, who travels to China three to four times a year with the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, a Bethesda, Md. based nonprofit focused on consumer safety. Rogers says 90 percent of the world s fireworks originate in China, from hundreds of factories in Hunan province, Jiangxi province and the southern city of Beihai. Importers, meanwhile, place orders with brokers on the mainland or in Hong Kong.
As for the other 10 percent, James Widmann, president of Connecticut Pyrotechnic Manufacturing, says some originate in India, Spain and other parts of Europe. Mexico, he says, could eventually become a major supplier to the U.S. because of its ability to send fireworks here by truck rather than shipping them overseas a process fraught with obstacles. Most shipping companies don t want to risk sacrificing 99 percent of their cargo for the sake of the 1 percent that can blow it all up, says Widmann.
FIREWORKS DISPLAYS have gotten shorter in recent years and now typically last roughly 20 minutes, according to Roberto Sorgi, co-owner of American Fireworks in Hudson, Ohio. Today s audiences want more-fast-paced entertainment, he says. But shows are shrinking in another way, too: Shippers recently started following a tougher United Nations classification scheme, curbing imports of shells more than 8 inches in diameter. That means we re seeing fewer of the biggest, most spectacular fireworks from abroad, while display companies have been turning to smaller-diameter shells as a cost-cutting measure, says John Starr, of Starr Fireworks in Horace, N.D.
But size isn t everything. Advances in technology mean exhibitors can pack more oomph into shorter, smaller-scale productions. Displays are now often digitally synchronized with music, thanks to software that enables complex sequences. John Conkling, who teaches pyrotechnic chemistry at Washington College in Maryland, says the colors have gotten brighter and more diverse. And so-called patterned shells explode into shapes like hearts, smiley faces, even 3-D cubes.
ROZZI, ZAMBELLI, Grucci. In the fireworks industry, such names are common because Italian immigrants founded many of the country s leading companies. Large firms dominate the industry because it s extremely hard for newcomers to break in. Nationally, says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, five companies represent 75 percent of the market for both consumer and display fireworks.
The reasons it s so tough: federal regulations and sky-high insurance costs. Tami Towne, whose firm Ryder Rosacker McCue & Huston sells policies to fireworks firms, says many kinds are needed, from transportation to workers compensation insurance. Firms must register with the Department of Transportation to transport commercial fireworks and be licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to manufacture, possess and store them. Rules became even stricter after 9/11 with the Safe Explosives Act, which ramped up criminal-background checks. Not good for business, says Heckman, but then again, you re dealing with a commodity that s designed to explode.
WANT TO BUY and use fireworks on your own? It can be difficult and is often illegal. Nationwide, certain products, ingredients and kits are prohibited by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. No-nos include M-80s and cherry bombs, reloadable launch tubes above a certain size, and small cracker balls that could be mistaken for food. Many states and municipalities have their own rules. For example, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey have long prohibited consumer fireworks entirely.
As a result of this regulatory hodgepodge, some enthusiasts travel across state lines to get what they want. For example, Michigan residents seeking aerial fireworks (illegal in their state) will drive to Indiana or Ohio to buy them, then smuggle them across state lines, says Andy Webb, owner of Captain Boom Fireworks in Otsego, Mich. In other cases, it s not exactly a secret. Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks leases billboards along New Jersey highways leading to Pennsylvania, where fireworks can be bought legally. We don t encourage anyone to break the law, says Phantom owner Bill Weimer.
MANY FIREWORKS contain a salt called perchlorate. In theory, it should be fully consumed during the chemical reaction, but scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency recently found that perchlorate from fireworks can make its way into the environment. From 2004 to 2006, EPA researchers collected samples from an Ada, Okla., lake after fireworks shows. Each time, the water s per-chlorate concentration spiked to up to 1,000 times above normal and didnt return to former levels until as many as 80 days later. David Parker, an environmental-chemistry professor at the University of California, Riverside, says it raises concerns that perchlorate, which may impair cognitive and physi-cal development in fetuses and infants, could contaminate drinking water.
Humans may not be the only ones affected. Last year a lawyer for activist Shirley Reynolds wrote to the city of Daytona Beach and the state of Florida, among others, alleging fireworks were harming shore birds and other wildlife. You had sea turtles ingesting fireworks debris, Reynolds says. Daytona Beach City Attorney Marie Hartman says the city wasn t aware of any adverse consequences.
EVER TRIED TAKING pictures of fireworks? Then you know how elusive the perfect shot can be. Fireworks shells burst so quickly that it s difficult to capture them when the blast is biggest. Even if you have ace reflexes, there are technical issues that make it tough: It s dark outside, and your camera doesn t have anything nearby to focus on. And really, how often do you get to practice?
According to Chuck DeLaney, dean of the New York Institute of Photography, there are a few things spectators can do to get better shots of fireworks. The main thing, he says, is to put your camera on manual mode so you can increase the exposure to three or four seconds, giving you a better chance of capturing the peak of the explosion. To avoid blurriness, he suggests resting the camera on the ground or using a tripod. Finally, he warns against making the mistake of thinking you need a big, bulky (and expensive) camera to get good results. He says midprice point-and-shoots can usually operate in manual mode and often work just as well. There s plenty of firepower in them, DeLaney says.
THE WORLD WAS stunned by an elaborate fireworks display during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 only to find out later that some had been digitally animated. According to a report in the Chinese media, visual-effects specialists worked for a year to create one sequence.
Despite the controversy, such practices are fairly common in Hollywood. Some studios use computer-generated fireworks to save money. Even a month of my time was still far cheaper than setting up a single live-action shoot, says Mike Perry, CG supervisor at Weta Digital, the New Zealand firm responsible for much of the animation in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In those movies, the fireworks were clearly fantasy. But other times, the presence of computer effects is harder to discern. In the comedy Adventureland, for example, the scenes for which Zambelli Fireworks International launched displays appear to have been edited slightly, says Zambelli project manager Damian DiCola. The sky looked a lot more of a solid black in the movie than what I remember it looking like while filming, he says.
UNFORTUNATELY, fireworks do injure and kill people every year. In 2009, there were at least two fireworks-related deaths and 8,800 emergency-room visits in the U.S., according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But they re far more dangerous to use than to watch: The vast majority of injuries are related to consumer fireworks. When it comes to professional displays, industry experts say it s mainly the workers who are at risk. Audiences are protected by a required distance between the launch site and seating area. The National Fire Protection Association mandates at least 70 feet for every inch of a firework s external diameter. (In other words, for 8-inch shells, the audience must be sitting at least 560 feet away.)
Doug Mawhorr, a lawyer whose Indiana practice is 75 to 80 percent dedicated to fireworks-related legal issues, has defended companies against injury lawsuits. He says one way to protect yourself during displays is to view them from a spot where a low building stands between you and the launch site. Also, watch out for audience members setting off consumer fireworks; these could accidentally fire at other spectators. Lastly, says Mawhorr, supervise kids closely children under 15 accounted for 40 percent of the injuries in 2007 and go easy on the beer. Alcohol and fireworks do not mix, he says.
DESPITE THEIR close connection to American history, fireworks aren t just good for Independence Day. For example, Disney has been using them year-round since 1956. These days the company stages elaborate productions at 11 parks (and on some cruise ships), incorporating music, projectors, lasers and live entertainers. According to a spokesperson, these shows run as often as daily, depending on the park, crowd size and time of year.
Lately, industry experts say, the shift away from the Fourth of July has accelerated, with more fireworks in use at weddings, sports matches and rock concerts. That s a growing segment, says Heckman, of the American Pyrotechnics Association. Now there are these other supplemental events. She says it s especially common these days for minor-league baseball teams to host fireworks shows on Friday nights to attract families. Still,
for many in the industry, America s birthday remains their bread and butter. Says Captain Boom owner Webb, each year as the Fourth of July approaches, I tell people Christmas is coming, and I m Santa Claus.