A lack of rain in Southern California and elsewhere is turning into a smoldering concern this Fourth of July season, as officials worry fireworks may ignite dry brush in drought-stricken areas.
But Jim Souza sees opportunity.
Souza, who heads Rialto-based Pyro Spectaculars Inc., has developed something he has dubbed "high-definition fireworks," which he hopes will address increasing safety concerns over pyrotechnic safety.
The HD shells are designed to perform at a lower altitude and are packed more compactly, so there is less fallout from shell materials. The fireworks will make their local debut Wednesday at three locations, including the area's largest show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
The idea came to Souza three years ago while he was watching a broadcast of the Macy's New York fireworks show on a high-definition, widescreen television. He noticed the display was unable to adequately capture the scope of his company's fireworks, resulting in a lot of empty black space and a camera angle that was "all over the place."
"When I looked at the TV broadcast I said that something had to change," said Souza, whose family has been in the fireworks business for five generations and has built one of the industry's biggest companies. "They didn't look good."
Souza wanted to develop fireworks that would match the quality and more horizontal format of high-definition televisions.
So in 2005 Souza flew to China to meet with the suppliers that manufacture his fireworks. In all, Pyro Spectaculars spent a year developing the fireworks. The new product debuted last Fourth of July at Macy's New York event, the country's largest fireworks show.
"It was phenomenal -- nothing like it," said Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Assn., who watched the New York show live. "I thought it was definitely one of the most spectacular shows I've ever seen."
Paul Souza, Jim Souza's son and a show producer for Pyro Spectaculars, said the new fireworks should be easy to detect, even to the untrained eye. In addition to bursting lower to the ground, the fireworks are packed with smaller stars, the industry term for the pellets that produce an explosion's streak across the sky. The result is fuller bursts with more density and deeper colors.
"It's a lot of smaller, tiny points of light as opposed to half as many bigger points of light," he said. "There's some extra wow factor."
At the Rose Bowl show, for example, audience members can expect to see HD fireworks explode just above the rim of the bowl, Jim Souza said, making the action seem "more in-your-face."
HD fireworks will also be on display in Southern California at Dodger Stadium and in Redlands. Nationally, the fireworks will again be used at the Macy's New York show as well as in Boston, Seattle and Houston. The shows will combine the HD fireworks with traditional fare, though Souza said he could envision an all-HD fireworks show "probably within five years."
"Pretty soon, this will be the thing," he predicted.
The new fireworks cost about as much to produce as traditional ones, Souza said. Fireworks shows are notoriously expensive, with 30-minute productions costing $10,000 to $1 million. The Rose Bowl show this year will cost about $250,000.
Many crowd favorites, including smiley faces, flowers and cube shapes, already have been adapted to the new format.
"We can't cut out the all-stars from the show," Paul Souza said.
But improved aesthetics aren't the only payoff: With lower performance altitudes and less fallout of shell materials, the HD fireworks are safer than traditional fireworks, Jim Souza said. Traditional fireworks can reach 1,200 feet in the sky, whereas HD fireworks top out at about 400 feet, he said. The HD fireworks can also be launched from smaller firing sites, which takes into account growing population density.
When produced correctly, professional fireworks shows pose minimal risks to the public -- even during dry summers, Heckman said. Responsible event producers will often tweak their shows for certain venues and weather conditions to ensure maximum safety. But all the same, she praised Pyro Spectaculars for its efforts to make its shows even safer.
"These guys know how to modify for all kinds of conditions," she said. "They're going to do everything they can to do what's new, different and most improved."
Dry conditions led Burbank to cancel its Fourth of July show this year. The city usually launches its fireworks from a dry brush area on the Verdugo Mountains adjacent to the Starlight Bowl.
"Every year it's a problem for us, even when we pre-treat the brush," said Ron Bell, Burbank Fire Department spokesman. "We always have a few hot spots and smoldering areas from the fallout that we have to address."
Bell called the cancellation very rare and said the city would "try to move forward next year."
"A fireworks display is real important for us," he said, "but it's not worth anybody's home and certainly not anybody's life."