Blowing up real good
Canada's fireworks industry is booming, but there are safety issues
LIANNE GEORGE | Jun 30, 2005
What better way to celebrate the founding of the nation than to gather family and friends in the backyard and ignite a product called Powder Keg? Everyone loves fireworks -- if not for the effects, which are frequently underwhelming, then for the technicoloured packaging, the overwrought names(Dragon's Breath, Vulcan Rainbow Mine, Storm Warning)and the inherent promise of hilarity contained in a party favour equipped with gunpowder and a fuse.
Consider the Burning Schoolhouse($3.25)-- for decades, the highlight of Canada Day fireworks displays for the 12-and-under set. The anticipation has always been that, as soon as an obliging adult sets fire to the thing, the tiny, red-brick schoolhouse would combust in a fury of hellfire and thunderous booms -- perhaps accompanied by a raucous chorus of Alice Cooper's School's Out. In fact, what you get is a small flare, a faint whistle and, finally, a cardboard box consumed, rather morosely, in a slow burn. It's easily the most dispiriting firework on the market, but every first of July, there it is: the main attraction.
In the past few years, however, thanks to a new generation of higher-quality products imported from China, the calibre of consumer fireworks available in Canada has become much more sophisticated. Sure, you can still buy the classics: the Roman candles(which shoot coloured balls into the air one at a time, producing a series of intermittent poofs), the Grecian fountains(inverted cones that hiss and spray), the wheels(high-pitched, squealing spinners you nail to a fence)and the Brazilian fireworks(noise bombs).
But the biggest new trend in fireworks is the multi-shot cake. These are "repeaters," which means that, with only one fuse to light, they'll shoot a series of flittering, crackling or whistling comets or mines, creating an enormous, long-lasting, professional effect. According to the staff at Kaboom Fireworks, one of Canada's largest fireworks retail chains, one of the top-selling cakes this year is Piranha($22.95), which consists of a series of 25 multicoloured explosions that produce a new effect called the swimming fish. "It suspends in the air for a second and then it looks like a school of fish darting out all over the place," says Tom Jacob, Kaboom's general manager. "That's definitely the most popular effect."
Then there are the showstoppers: Flame Thrower, Phantom Wars and Monster Mash, which fire 100 continuous shots, each of them with a secondary effect such as "whizzing," "buzzing," "spinning" or "flowers." At $48.95, they're the most expensive products Kaboom carries. "It's sensory overload," says Allison Greenbaum, who manages one of the chain's Toronto locations. You'll also see more targeted products. For girly-girls, for example, there's a new Roman candle called Party Girl, which fires a series of crackling pink-and-white stars. And for patriots, there are special Canada Day-themed fireworks. One of them -- intended for daytime use -- consists of a rocket that shoots a Canadian flag 75 m into the sky, at which point it sails down attached to a parachute.
But it's not all wholesome family recreation. This past Victoria Day weekend, the Toronto fire department reported "an alarming number" of fireworks-related incidents, including 31 fires that caused a total of $306,541 in property damage. Most of the mischief, media footage later showed, was caused by teenagers engaging in fireworks fights in the streets. "It appears that teens were firing Roman candles at each other and at objects," says district chief Stephan Powell. "Some arsons were caused by fireworks being placed in buildings. As to how the kids obtained the fireworks, we do not know."
For the industry -- a multi-million dollar business in Canada -- it's been a bit of a public relations disaster, with some people calling for a ban on fireworks altogether. "It's ridiculous," says Evan Greenbaum, spokesperson for the Canadian Pyrotechnics Council and owner of Kaboom. "You don't blame spray paint for graffiti." Part of the problem, he says, is that, according to the Canada Explosives Act regulations, anyone can sell consumer fireworks in small quantities without a licence -- which is why convenience stores tend to carry a shelf-full this time of year. Often, however, this means you'll find "renegade" vendors setting up stands on the side of a highway or selling fireworks out of the backs of trucks. And they don't always obey the rules -- primary among them being, no selling to minors. "We support a licensing, enforcement and regulation scenario," says Greenbaum. "We're looking to create a system whereby we know exactly who's selling fireworks and ensure they're selling according to regulations in a safe and responsible manner."
For obvious reasons, fireworks are a difficult product to manage. The potential liability issues are staggering. "Insurance is astronomically expensive," says Jacob. "It's awful. There's only one company in Canada that will insure for fireworks vendors, so as you can imagine, they charge pretty much whatever they like."
Even with the safety sheets that some retailers hand out, consumers are still guaranteed to sometimes do stupid things. Most misuse of fireworks is unintentional. For instance, maybe someone plants a firework upside down so it shoots into the lawn. Or maybe it's not buried deeply enough, and it topples over and fires out across the grass, skimming the knees of onlookers. Worst-case scenario: some genius tries to "fix" a defective firework. But in some cases, products are misused on purpose. "I've heard of people putting on goggles and some sort of suit and running around having Roman candle fights, which is really stupid," says Jacob. "You're not supposed to hold any firework in your hands, and people know that. Thank God that's a tiny, tiny portion of users." Once in a blue moon, he'll come across a particularly suspicious type. "But the people who want fireworks for surreptitious purposes, they tend to tell you up front," he says. "They'll call and they'll say, 'I'm looking for a quantity of potassium nitrate.' I guess they're not very smart."
For the most part, people enjoy fireworks responsibly. And, so far, business this year is good. People are spending more than they used to. "There is a huge number of customers who are spending over $200 and $300," says Jacob. "Some are spending up to $600 because the larger pieces are really impressive and people seem to want to have big shows." The industry is even experimenting with ways to liven up the Burning Schoolhouse. "One way is to put Flash Flitters in the windows," says Allison Greenbaum. "Then, as it's burning down, it lights these strobe lights and it starts to flash really brightly. That makes it more exciting." It's a start, anyway.