William Bulifant remembers turning up his coat collar on hot July nights, running with a flare along a line of fuses that launched fireworks high into the sky and brought sparks raining down on him.
That was nearly 30 years ago.
Mr. Bulifant, 58, doesn’t miss those days. The head of Dominion Fireworks will oversee 68 workers putting on nearly 20 shows across the area on Thursday — with more powerful explosives, more illustrative displays and more sophisticated triggers than he had back in the day.
“It’s grown leaps and bounds,” Mr. Bulifant said. “I do still get excited. It’s very cool. In my wildest dreams I never imagined the magnitude of this business.”
Dressed in khakis and a casual shirt, he talked about his trade as he stood next to an enormous green shipping container at his company headquarters in Petersburg, Va., about 2 hours south of the District. His group puts on about 175 shows throughout the year and has worked events watched by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Depending on the amount and type of fireworks and the location, a 15-minute show can cost about $55,000.
“It used to be very seasonal, between Memorial Day and Labor Day,” Mr. Bulifant said. “Now it goes all the time.”
Independence Day is obviously still the biggest day of his year.
In the 29 years he has been in the business, Mr. Bulifant said he has seen major changes in fireworks shows and their popularity.
Gone are the days when he and his crews would light fuses by hand — although some small shows still work that way. Instead, technicians use something called a “firing panel,” which looks like a sound control board with knobs and switches programmed to launch anywhere from a few dozen rockets to 2,000 fireworks, depending on the show.
“It’s very cool,” Mr. Bulifant said. “I never thought I’d see it that way. Years ago, we were just trying to connect the laptop to the system.”
The technology makes possible more complicated displays, like the one in the District on Thursday night in which 3,000 individual fireworks will explode over the Mall in a 17-minute show. It also creates the possibility of mishaps, like a disastrous celebration in San Diego last July Fourth when a computer glitch caused the fireworks for an 18-minute show all to detonate in 30 seconds.
Mr. Bulifant’s headquarters are set up in a clearing at the end of a nondescript gravel road. A warehouse takes up a good portion of the property. Shipping containers that hold live ammunition are hidden in the woods under lock and key. Inside the hot, dry containers are piled cardboard boxes, each labeled in English and Chinese characters. Mr. Bulifant directly imports his fireworks from Guangxi, China, where the shells are made. The labels, with warnings of flammability, identify the contents inside and describe the fireworks’ color and shape when it explodes.
The shells in this container are 10 inches in diameter.
“We used to do 12 inches,” Mr. Bulifant says wistfully, explaining that regulations for the larger fireworks have gotten much stricter.
He passes an explosive about the size of a coconut between his hands. Depending on the combination, the shell filled with explosive powder, chemicals and fuses could explode into the shape of a giant golden willow, an elegant green flower, or even yellow ribbons and purple hearts.