More BP oil spill fallout: Seaside fireworks displays cut back

Miami HeraldJuly 4, 2010 

MIAMI — Add fireworks to the list of seaside pleasures tarred by the Gulf Coast's oil crisis.

Some Fourth of July shows were canceled this weekend because of budget woes as tourism plunges across the region, pyrotechnic companies said. Other cities moved popular beachfront celebrations inland out of fear a stray fireworks ember could ignite oily waters.

But the biggest complication comes from the cleanup itself. With a massive armada of vessels needed to fight the spreading slick, barges used to launch fireworks have found more lucrative work offshore.

"I have not heard from my captain for three days,'' said Mike Farren, of Pyro Shows, a Tennessee company with more than two dozen fireworks shows on the Gulf Coast this year. Headquarters dispatched Farren to supervise the frantic reworking of the pyrotechnic logistics -- mostly moving the firework shows from sea to land.

"We're doing 25 or 30 shows down here, and most of them are suffering some way or the other, and changing everything,'' Farren said.

A relocated or downsized fireworks display certainly pales in the growing roster of woes facing the Gulf Coast as vacation bookings drop by as much as 50 percent and businesses warn of impending bankruptcy if summer traffic doesn't improve.

But the scramble by Farren and other firework engineers, as well as local organizers, reflects the broad, insidious impact the BP oil spill is having on daily life throughout the region.

As oil began threatening the Florida Panhandle after the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, Santa Rosa County tourism director Kate Wilkes began wondering if the annual Navarre Beach fireworks show was at risk. She and other organizers were concerned floating plumes of oil could catch fire during the show.

"Who knows?'' said Wilkes. ``We started talking about it right away.''

Santa Rosa decided to move its fireworks launch site from a new 1,504-foot fishing pier on the Gulf to the inland Santa Rosa Sound, where the chances of an oil slick seemed remote.

Concerns about a near-shore fire proved to be overkill -- the latest report had the Gulf plume 30 miles from the Florida Panhandle, with light sheen and tar balls the main problem here.

"We shouldn't have changed it,'' Wilkes said. ``But we didn't know. We went with what was safe.''

Santa Rosa can consider itself lucky for the Fourth -- it managed to secure a fireworks barge at the last minute. Organizers in other seaside areas including Pensacola Beach, Seaside and Panama City Beach faced the opposite problem: seeing barges reserved months ahead of time suddenly snatched by the Gulf oil cleanup, firework companies said.

The shows will go on, but sharp-eyed firework fans may notice subtle differences, said Pyro Shows owner Lansden Hill.

Because they are hundreds of yards from crowds, floating barges allow pyrotechnic engineers to fire large shells high into the air. Moving a show to land -- such as a crowded beach -- requires smaller munitions, Hill said. The result: firework displays that explode into a smaller radius and soar shorter distances.

Engineers also can't use the large shells required for special effects like ``serpents'' (they have swirling tails), ``whistles'' (they shriek) and ``tourbillions'' (they spin like a top).

"It's a definite downgrade,'' Hill said.

Still, at least one audience will see a longer, more bombastic show thanks to the oil crisis.

When Pensacola Beach lost its barge, organizers opted to launch its show from a fishing pier.

The long wharf extends far enough into the Gulf that engineers can use large shells, so the effects should be the same, said Greg Threadgill, who is working with a Pennsylvania firm, Pyrotecnico, to produce a show that on Sunday will feature 20 percent more shells.

"There was some cost involved in renting a barge,'' Threadgill said, "and we put that money into the show.''

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