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.
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.”