At 20 years old, Steve Barnes couldn’t have known that a supposedly casual activity would develop into a lifelong passion.
In 1984, the APSP Technical Committee chairman was dating the woman who would become his first wife. Her parents owned Fireworks Productions of Arizona, which had been charged with producing one of the top two July 4 fireworks shows in the Phoenix area. Her brother kind of chided Barnes into helping with one of the smaller events.
“It was raining, and he handed me a flare and said, ‘Go light that,’ without any training or warning,” Barnes says. “I was convinced he was trying to get rid of me.”
Who would know that, almost 30 years later, he would stay on as “head pyro” for the July 4 extravaganza?
It may have started as a prank of sorts, but doing fireworks shows instantly appealed to Barnes. What young adult male wouldn’t have fun blowing off fireworks? “Early on, I was definitely ego motivated in the explosive side of it,” he says.
But the attraction is much different now. For one thing, it is very ingrained in family. Though Barnes did not remain married to his first wife, he stayed on with Fireworks Productions of Arizona, and their two sons came on board, too, bringing in the third generation.
This side job also appeals to Barnes’ theatrical side. Months in advance, he and the team begin choosing an eclectic mix of upbeat tunes and figuring out how to time the fireworks with the music. “It’s still an artistic outlet but it’s more behind-the-scenes,” he says. “I always enjoyed making crowds happy, but I found I was most content to make the show work on time, the technical side of it. And fireworks was kind of a nice extension of that.”
The work can be grueling. As if it’s not enough to be handling fireworks in the middle of a Phoenix summer, the crews must be covered head-to-toe to protect themselves. Some have suffered heat stroke, and Barnes is always on top of the younger staffers to wear strong shoes because the heat from the pavement could actually penetrate though thinner soles and burn their feet.
They actually begin physically training for the show in advance. “We have to, weeks beforehand, start going outside and exercising in the middle of the day to get ready for it, because we’re not out there all the time,” Barnes says.
Come July 4, it’s a long day. Tempe’s Mill Avenue Bridge can only shut down for the day, so the team has to arrive by 7:00 a.m. to set up, present the show, clean up and get out by 1:00 the following morning. “The excitement builds, the adrenaline builds and the physical side of it — how tired we are — really doesn’t enter into it,” Barnes says.
Because of the small window of opportunity on the site, the team can only computer-generate the introduction and grand finale. There just isn’t enough time to properly set the fireworks up with a computerized system and test it. The rest of the approximately 40-minute production must be fired by hand.
Barnes’ experience as a pyro has helped his work developing pool industry standards and collaborating with government agencies and model-code writing bodies. The codes governing fireworks companies and the officials enforcing them are much more strict than those involved with pools and spas, Barnes says. “They are the same ones who do the fire investigations, so they are dealing with loss of life and the seriousness that is a building fire,” he says. “So when they come out and look at a fireworks show it’s through that prism. And if they don’t hand me the permit, there is no show — and it’s right now, right then.”
Barnes tries to top himself bit by bit each year. But the cycle for the July 4 show begins early. He’s already begun his search for some key 2013 fireworks. “We’re already in the process of picking a grand finale for next year,” he says. “What I would like to do differently for next year is bring in fireworks that are only used on this show.”
Big bang theory
One of the biggest fireworks debacles in recent history happened last July 4 at the Port of San Diego, when all the fireworks meant for a 15-minute show went off all at once, five minutes before the scheduled start time. Garden State Fireworks, which produced the show, said that a signal malfunctioned. “What happened in San Diego is my fear,” Barnes says.
Because the San Diego show was put on using similar equipment to what Barnes uses, he has a theory about how it happened: “There’s a safe mode where you can test everything,” he says.
“And the only difference between test mode and actually shooting the show is turning a key. When the key is set on ‘fire power off,’ that’s safe [or test] mode — it checks the circuit on every firework that it’s going to shoot electrically. If the key is turned to ‘fire power on’ when you run the test, every single firework is going to shoot in a few seconds.”
Fireworks date back to 7th century China. To this day, China remains the top producer of fireworks, with 90 percent coming from the Far East nation.
The best weather for fireworks is not only when there’s a clear sky but also low humidity. Firework events let off large quantities of smoke, and higher humidity levels will keep the smoke lower to the ground, near viewers. Lower humidity levels and some moving air will take the smoke away, leaving just the brilliant colors to take the stage.