Fireworks mechanics operate on a 1 to 100 ratio. A shell with a 3-inch diameter travels 100 feet per second, meaning it reaches its peak height of 300 feet in three seconds. A 10-inch explosive requires a safety zone on the ground that has a radius of about 1,000 feet.
Mr. Bulifant has learned to appreciate the range of fireworks, whether it’s their color, shape or sound — those deafening booms are called “salutes,” and pack serious firepower but no color. His favorite firework is the crossette, a type of explosion that shoots color in four directions.
But fireworks weren’t always his business.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Bulifant’s father was working as the superintendent of parks in Petersburg when he was asked to organize the fireworks show to help with budget cuts.
“He was a very adventurous person and loved the challenges — like me. I enjoy the challenges,” Mr. Bulifant said.
The elder Mr. Bulifant learned the basics and started a 15-year string of popular fireworks shows in Petersburg before his retirement.
Mr. Bulifant was working as a police detective around 1984 when he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Ten years later, he left the force to work full time in the fireworks business.
Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, explained that “a vast majority” of the fireworks companies in the U.S. are family owned.
“Many of them are fourth-, fifth-, sixth-generation families who originated in Italy or Portugal and brought them to the United States,” she said. “That’s one of the most fascinating things about this industry. APA membership is like a big family reunion.”
The fireworks business will continue to progress, Ms. Heckman said, likely in what audiences see in the sky. In fact, the District had the first shapes, purple hearts and yellow rainbows, when welcoming home troops from Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
“Then we started seeing smiley faces and dice, cubes, Saturn rings,” she said. “Soon we’ll see letters. I think they’ll get there. Some day you’ll see your name in the sky.”