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Helluvabang! Helluvabang!
by Asa Butcher
2007-08-31 09:51:43
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"Why are fireworks popular? That is a hard question. They are just good looking and give you a thrill with the bangs. We once had big bangers that are now forbidden and men would ask, 'Why have you stopped selling the ones with a helluvabang?' We don’t understand why men love the ones with a 'helluvabang', but there are good effects and combinations; they are good looking if properly done."

article_02_400Leif Nielsen is the Technical Director at Ilotulitus Oy, Finland's oldest firework company, and has worked with fireworks for 27 years, ever since leaving the army as an explosives and gunpowder chemist, "The more involved you become in fireworks, the more you realise that it isn’t just about letting them off, you have to think about it and plan it. For example, what colours match?"

Founded in 1948, Ilotulitus Oy is based in Tuusula, on the outskirts of Helsinki, and is set in 25 acres of no smoking grounds. They are the only factory in northern Europe that makes fireworks for commercial displays and recently came third in Finland's 2006 Firework Championships, hosted by Nelonen, plus their insurance premiums would give most companies a heart attack.

"In Finnish law, you need an education in chemistry. There is no normal route. You have to have some experience first to get to a higher level. There is no education in the university - Kari has been doing this since he was a little boy!" 'Kari' is Kari Kuosmanen, the company's show coordinator, who has had an active interest in fireworks ever since he was a young boy, "I started to make my own fireworks at home when I was ten or twelve, which is very illegal now but not fifteen years ago!"

There may have been a change in the law, but there are not many new fireworks, "There have been similar fireworks for hundreds of years. There are different compositions, so the stars get better colours, but the main products are the same - rockets, batteries, roman candles and so on; it is just a twist on an old idea," reveals Leif. "It can take a very long time to perfect a firework. You just have to make them, test, you can calculate a little from the composition you put in, but it is just trial and error….mostly."

Ilotulitus Oy, like most of the world, imports their fireworks from China, "They have tens of thousands of factories in China, maybe even more," says Leif. "We have our own Chinese man buying for us and checking the quality before they come here. The other day he was telling me that he had travelled 1,300km from one factory to the other by trains and buses."

When a shipment arrives from China, they have to quality test a certain amount of items, such as the burning time for a fuse, check that it works as it should and ensure that the labelling is accurate, before they can be sent to shops. "In Finland, the legal maximum is 200g of pyrotechnic mass in one firework, but it is not limited in professional use - 200g includes gunpowder and chemicals, everything," explains Leif.

"We don’t use rockets in displays. We have shells that we shoot from mortars, like the army," adds Kari, "There is a timed fuse and quick match, which goes into the black powder, when you ignite this black powder it blows out this black ball. However, some fireworks are now being launched with compressed air, which is environmentally friendly because gunpowder makes a hell of a lot of smoke! Compressed air has a higher cost because you must have special shells, not only compressed air, plus special igniters for the shells, and they cannot be reused since it explodes into a thousand pieces."

Compressed air detonators are just one of the latest innovations in the firework industry, but computers have allowed show coordinators, such as Kari, to ensure displays are perfect, "You can shoot every shell with a very small computer and you can make different shapes, with exact timing - a good firework display is all about timing," stresses Kari. "I use a computer with special software called Digital Pyro System to make plans and I have to write and make the maps for the firing positions. However, computers have meant five to ten times more work because I now have to input all the data!"

article_03_400Computers have enabled such precision that pyro-musicals have become very popular, "Kari makes sure they go off to the rhythm, so that the explosions follow the music. You cannot do this with smaller fireworks, but Kari does a very good job at making them go off at exactly the right time," interjects Leif. "I love to use 'I Feel Good' by James Brown, which won last year's championships," adds Kari.

The championships held in Helsinki earlier this year is one of the largest in Finland, both in attendance and quantity of explosive. "The Nelonen show was actually limited to 370kg of explosives, so it was quite a big event, especially if you think that 50,000 people were watching this one-hour show. There were five other competitors, including JoHo Pyro from Ahvenanmaa that won it with lots of big shells, lots of noise, and, of course, the music was meant for the Finnish people; he used 'Hard Rock Hallelujah' by Lordi, so he was quite a smart guy," says Leif laughing.

"Some people said that show was like a popular show, nothing special, nothing artistic, nothing special for professionals. It is difficult to explain, but, for example, we, along with Tähtiraketti, tried very difficult things to do," mulls Kari. "We had a very small show after that competition in Vuosaari, but the people were very close and said it was better than the competition because they weren't far from the firing area, but it was nothing special to me!"

"I think people want loud big fireworks," continues Kari, "but normally we start with smaller ones because they can remember only the last one after the show, so if you use ten, five or three big shells they can remember then. If you are using red fireworks it is a very bad idea to mix everything, always mixing all the colours, it looks terrible, so you have to plan it very well."

Ilotulitus Oy may seem to focus on large commercial displays, such as displays for towns and cities, but they also offer smaller displays for weddings and birthdays, "When someone approaches us to create a display, you have to be rude and ask how much you are willing to pay because you cannot arrange it at all otherwise," says Leif smiling. "The minimum price for a good display starts from 600€ for a wedding," adds Kari, "This is just very small and very close to the area because if we go very far the transport costs become very big…fireworks are classed as dynamite, so logistics become very difficult."

Safety is the first priority of all pyro-technicians and, as Kari said, "If you have a big area full of fireworks it is not a very nice feeling to go and shoot them one by one. During the finale, you have big shells and dangerous items and sometimes they can explode into the crowd, but that is very rare! They can destroy other fireworks and they can also shoot into the wrong direction," he pauses for a second, "that would be the most dangerous."

Instances of fireworks malfunctioning is very uncommon, yet they have a reputation of being particularly dangerous, but misuse is normally to blame, "We have leaflets that go to every house, like saying use safety goggles, but on New Year's Eve people aren’t sober," explains Leif. "Bottle rockets are very dangerous because they are very cheap and teenagers start to shoot them one by one, but after a while they take all the pack of twelve and shoot them at once," says Kari.

"Most of the importers have agreed to stop these roman candles and small bottle rockets, so they are not importing them anymore. There are some items that are too cheap and I don’t mean that we would like to make more money from them, but they are too cheap because then the kids misuse them. They used to sell 320 pieces for ten marks (2€), you put them in a tin can and then your hands were hanging by the skin, which is what they showed on the news, but they didn’t say that it was misuse; it was the banger that did it," exclaims Leif.

Currently, EU directives are being drafted on fireworks, but they are still being discussed, "The Spaniards are so far away from the safety standards employed by the Scandinavians, so it is very hard. At present, we can only sell fireworks to the public during the few days between Christmas and New Year, so that is our busiest period. Fireworks, if stored in a cool dry place, will keep for decades - we have some fireworks that are over thirty years old and can still be fired," reveals Leif.

Fireworks receive a great deal of criticism from environmental groups concerning the smoke and dust that they produce, along with the heavy metals, sulphur-coal compounds and other toxic chemicals. Leif believes that this negligible if you think about the pollution that is emitted from cars, although there will be a peak if you measure on New Year's Eve.

"We try to ensure there are no heavy metals, which was very much used before, and now you have plastic parts. The majority of fireworks are made out of cardboard, except the top is made from plastic. Plastic is easier to make and is better looking; twenty years ago in England, they were usually made from cardboard. I also think that the shells and rockets are quite well tidied up in this country, especially by the kids the next morning," Leif notes.

"The future of fireworks is unsure," believes Leif, "we hope we can continue, but some people think it is unnecessary and so dangerous. It is good that more and more people are becoming careful and normal consumer fireworks are getting smaller. It would be good to have a second official firework day in Finland, even Independence Day isn't considered an appropriate day."

"We have tried very much in Finland, especially on the west coast in Vaasa, Kokkola, Pietarsaari," says Leif, "They have this summer season fireworks final, it is the last weekend in August, but this year it went wrong because it was too dry to shoot any; it was forbidden to shoot. It was a shame because warm, dry and dark is a very good time to shoot." Kari doesn't agree, "Perfect conditions would be no rain, it is cold, not too cold, and it is snowing, also it shouldn't be very humid because of the smoke."

There is no definitive answer as to why fireworks are so popular, but it does not matter all the time they are producing 'ooohs' and 'ahhhs' from the watching crowds. The only thing that must never be forgotten is to give the men the occasional helluvabang!



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Get it off your chest
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Alan2006-11-05 14:25:32
A lot I didn't know! Thanks!

F.A. Hutchison2006-11-07 12:56:52
Gosh, how can you write about fireworks, and not include the country that invented them, China!
Chinese fire them off here at every ocassion, to scare off 'evil spirits!'
Haqi in China.

James2006-11-07 13:17:47
Yeah he does: Ilotulitus Oy, like most of the world, imports their fireworks from China, "They have tens of thousands of factories in China, maybe even more," says Leif. "We have our own Chinese man buying for us and checking the quality before they come here. The other day he was telling me that he had travelled 1,300km from one factory to the other by trains and buses."

and more!

The UK just had all the usual arguments for and against - always because some stupid kid misused them.

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