Quiet fireworks? Why some celebrations won't go on with a bang

Quiet fireworks and drone light shows are gaining popularity as alternatives to traditional loud and explosive fireworks at summer celebrations. Here's why.

Fiery explosions scare wildlife and pets, put rural areas at risk of forest fires

Montreal rang in 2018 with frigid temperatures, musical acts in the Old Port and a blast of traditional fireworks at the stroke of midnight. But some cities are now switching to alternatives like 'quiet' fireworks and drone light shows. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

People enjoy the vibrant colours and loud explosions of fireworks, but the bangs and fizzes can stress out animals and spark wildfires.

That's why several North American cities, including Banff, Alta., are abandoning traditional firework displays for quieter alternative light shows. 

Banff ditched its conventional fireworks display for a "quiet fireworks" show this past Canada Day.

It was a large-scale version of the pyrotechnics used for concerts and stage performances that maintained the flashy colours of normal fireworks while minimizing the traditional bangs, crackles and whistles accompanying  the explosions.

The decision to abandon fireworks was made earlier in the year by the city council to protect pets and wildlife that inhabit Banff National Park during all holiday celebrations from now on. 

"During fireworks displays, many of the domestic animals in our neighbourhood showed signs of distress such as shaking, hiding or running away," said Reg Bunyan, vice-president of the Bow Valley Naturalist, the conservation group that suggested the switch.

See a quiet fireworks wedding show in England 

Animal shelters also see an increase in lost animals during fireworks sessions and many animals injure themselves "in panicked attempts to escape the blasts," said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in a news release that announced the city would receive its "Compassionate Town Award" for switching to quieter fireworks. 

Traditional fireworks also have similar effects on wildlife.

"Deer throw themselves into roadways and birds fly into windows and buildings," said Rachel Bellis, a spokesperson for PETA.

As the West Sound Wildlife Shelter in Washington state points out, birds and small animals may also fly so far out they can't find their nests and their babies die. And in worst-case scenarios, small birds and mammals can get tangled in large fireworks or consume leftover debris and die.

PETA added that the loud noise from fireworks is also "disturbing to the elderly and people living with post-traumatic stress disorder. It can aggravate the symptoms of those suffering from respiratory problems."

Traditional fireworks are wrapped very tightly and normally use metals like aluminum as components, which helps create a louder boom.

"The tighter you pack the powder and the outer shell, the more pressure builds up, and creates a bigger boom when it bursts," said John Conkling, a professor emeritus of chemistry at Washington College in Maryland.

Quiet fireworks, on the other hand, use more black powder instead of metallic powder and are wrapped more loosely.

Lights on drones 

But reducing animal stress is not the only reason cities are switching. 

American cities in states like California, Arizona and Colorado used drones to put on light shows for the Fourth of July this year to reduce the likelihood of wildfires.

Hundreds of drones outfitted with LED lights were flown dancing to choreographed patterns using coloured lights.

A recent report by the National Fire Protection Association showed an estimated 15,600 reported fires were caused by fireworks in the U.S.

The Wildlife Museum in Arizona says animals are also injured or killed during the fires. And while birds and smaller mammals may be able to escape, their nests and burrows are destroyed. They suffer from habitat alteration and destruction.

Watch video of drone light show at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea

Cities like San Francisco presented displays similar to the light show from the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The drones created constellation-like outlines of the American flag, a plane and other designs during the electronic light show.

This month Intel celebrated its 50th anniversary by flying 2,018 Intel Shooting Star drones over its facility in Folsom, Calif., setting a Guinness World Record for the most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously.

Quiet but not quite silent

But alternatives to fireworks do have some issues.

The quiet fireworks aren't exactly mute. Banff's created audible pops as they were launched.

Ray Brazeau, a licensed pyrotechnician and president of StarLite Pyrotechnics Ltd., said it is impossible to make extravagant visual patterns without at least some noise.

Brazeau specializes in a variety of pyrotechnics, including outdoor aerial fireworks and pyrotechnics for performances. 

While traditional fireworks can theoretically go as high as about 550 metres, the height of the CN Tower, he said, quiet fireworks with a weaker chemical composition probably won't even go half as high.

That means the audience must be closer to enjoy the alternative showcase.

Watch video of quiet fireworks at a wedding in England

And while drone shows do not face the same problems as quiet fireworks, they aren't the perfect solution, either.

Each display can need anywhere from 100 to 500 drones depending on how complex the design is. Displays must also be programmed and tested before the real show.