Claim: “McMansions Murdered Big Fireworks”

According to the president of a fireworks company, one reason fireworks have gotten smaller in recent years is because people are living closer together:

That’s not just your childhood memory at work. Fireworks shows really were slower and fueled by bigger explosions just a few decades back. Today, shows tend to pack in more, smaller fireworks to make up scale in bulk. There are a variety of intersecting anthropological and financial reasons for that, explains Doug Taylor, the president of Zambelli Fireworks (a company that will put on roughly 600 fireworks shows across the country this holiday weekend). People live closer together, safety regulations have gotten tighter, and if you don’t have size, fireworks are exciting in sheer density.

To understand firework lingo, you have to realize that fireworks are described in inches per shell, and each inch correlates to 100 feet in launch height. That means a 2-inch shell fires 200 feet into the air, and a 4-inch shell reaches 400 feet. The bigger the shell, the bigger the pyrotechnics.

“What’s happened is, the size shell that you can shoot in a particular location has decreased,” Taylor explains. Just as shell width correlates to height, so too does height correlate with regulation. Old regulations dictated that you needed 70 feet of area cleared for every inch of shell fired around a launch area. The new industry standard is 100 feet. So when you play that out, practically, a large 12-inch shell needs 1,200 feet (or nearly a quarter of a mile) cleared in every direction to be considered safe.

Taylor tells me that fireworks sites nationwide have been shrinking with both urbanization and suburban sprawl. And fellow fireworks company Pyrotecnico echoes the sentiment. “What we’re finding is that sites are shrinking,” explains Pyrotecnico Creative Director Rocco Vitale. “Growth is happening. More buildings are going up. And when that happens at a site, a show you could use 6-inch shells two years ago becomes a place for 4-inch shells.”

So the term McMansion is used here as a shortcut for sprawl. More suburban homes makes it more difficult to find open spaces for big fireworks. The use of the term McMansion seems gratuitous to me – sprawl is composed of all sorts of homes and other buildings but the term will grab people’s attention.

So, armed with this knowledge, could anything change? Probably not. Americans like fireworks but they also like their sprawl. However, this might be another piece of ammunition (pun intended) for proponents of open space. At the same time, those who like open space may not like the idea of fireworks shells in natural settings anyhow. Does this then make it a better fireworks experience over large bodies of water?

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