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Written by Francisco Alvarado, BT Contributor   
July 2019

Behind the scenes with the fireworks people who light up Bayfront Park

AFireworks_1 series of flares shoot above Biscayne Bay, bursting into a kaleidoscope of twirling red, white, and blue sparks. The giant cascade of colors hovers above Bayfront Park, illuminating the steamy summer night sky for thousands of Miamians and tourists on the ground below, as well as hundreds of others on recreational boats bobbing on the water near the Port of Miami. For the next half hour, a portfolio of fireworks with names like “Six-Angle Chrysanthemum Gold Glitter” and “16-Side Peony With Glitter Pistol” will awe spectators at the City of Miami’s annual Fourth of July celebration.

For Gary Avins, the 65-year-old fireworks wizard who conjures up the annual show, it takes months of preparation to make sure the extravaganza that caps America’s Birthday Bash at Bayfront Park goes off without a hitch.

“Every year, I try to design and incorporate something new,” Avins tells Biscayne Times. “At the same time, this is a very complicated business with a lot of regulations and permits that requires careful planning.”

Fireworks_2Firepower Displays is not a bigger company than Zambelli Fireworks, the industry giant founded in 1893 that puts on more than 1600 shows annually. But, Avins notes, his outfit takes credit for putting on 100 shows throughout the Sunshine State during the Fourth of July summer season. “It’s not just on the Fourth,” he says. “We have shows on the second, third and fifth day in July.”

Annually, Firepower Displays produces an average of two to three shows a week, he says. His corporate client roster includes the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Casa Marina Key West, the Cheeca Lodge and Spa in Islamorada, and three minor league baseball teams in the Tampa Bay area.

Avins says his company employs 40 to 60 seasonal workers and supplies fireworks to about 20 smaller pyrotechnic show producers throughout the Southeastern U.S.

This July 4th, Firepower Displays is producing 17 shows in the Tri-County region in addition to Bayfront Park, including the annual U.S.A. birthday bashes at the Biltmore, and in Miami Springs, Miami Gardens, and Miramar.

Fireworks_3“I’ve worked with the City of Miami for more than 25 years, even when it was going bankrupt,” Avins says. “No one will do the show with the budget I have to work with. But I have more than enough work during the year to be able to do it.”

The Bayfront Management Trust earmarked just $20,000 for America’s birthday bash with the Downtown Development Authority kicking in a $10,000 grant. According to Firepower Display’s website, the company’s Fourth of July prices are steep. A water barge fireworks display, the type used for the Bayfront Park show, starts at $7500 for a five- to six-minute display. “Yes, I am taking a hit on the Bayfront show,” Avins admits.

Avins says some other Miami-Dade municipalities smaller than the City of Miami spend as much as a quarter-million dollars for Fourth of July celebrations. But it’s hard to beat the prestige that comes with producing the Bayfront Park show. “Fourth of July at Bayfront has been a showcase for me for a long time,” he says. “I would love to bring an international fireworks competition to downtown Miami. Bayfront is an ideal venue to bring people from all over the world.”

There are more than a dozen fireworks competitions around the globe, such as the World Pyro Olympics in Manila, the Celebration of Light in Vancouver, B.C., and Fireworks Championships, held at various venues in the United Kingdom.

Fireworks_4Teams are typically made up of fireworks manufacturers, who compete against one another over several days. Some meets are spread out during the year. For instance, the International Fireworks Competition Hanover-Herrenhausen in Germany holds four separate competitions in June, July, August, and September, when a winner is crowned. Avins says he has yet to attend a competition, much less compete in one.

He got into the fireworks business by chance in the early 1980s, when he hosted a barbecue and fish fry on Fourth of July in Key Largo. At the time, he owned a marketing company that specialized in promoting gourmet food products. Avins is also a professional beekeeper and once owned a honey-packing company.

“I wanted to do my own fireworks show at a corporate party I was throwing,” Avins says. “I got the necessary federal license and permits to do it. I’ve been fascinated by fireworks since I was a kid.”

Over the ensuing years, fireworks became a staple of the fish fry and garnered local media coverage, Avins says. The annual event’s popularity led to his first commercial fireworks production for the Key Largo Merchants Association in 1988. After doing that show, Avins says, he received a call from an official in Florida City, who wanted to hire him to put on a fireworks display for the municipality’s Fourth of July celebration the following year. From there, he got a contract with the City of Homestead.

Fireworks_5And in 1994, when he officially formed Firepower Displays, he did his first fireworks show for the City of Miami.

The initial step in producing a successful fireworks show is keeping up with trends and coming up with original explosive effects, Avins says. The intricate pyrotechnic patterns that fireworks produce often resemble flowers and plants in bloom, he explains says. “I work with designs developed by Italian, French, and Spanish fireworks companies,” he explains, “although most of the products are made in China.”

But prices for Chinese products could soon impact Avins’s cost of doing business. In his trade war with China, President Donald Trump is threatening another round of 25 percent tariffs on approximately $300 billion of Chinese goods that could include fireworks. “I’m waiting to see what happens,” Avins says. “I hope something gets worked out. If not, it will definitely add to the cost of putting on shows.”

Every year, either Avins or someone on his staff travels to factories in several cities in China’s Hunan Province, the “world’s capital of fireworks,” to find and buy the latest innovations in pyrotechnic entertainment.

“These are exclusively made for us,” Avins says. “Some are variations of fireworks that have been entered in European competitions that we rename.”

For the Bayfront Park show, Avins says, he choreographs the entire 30-minute display, mapping out a show based on his budget as well as local, state, and federal safety regulations. When launching from the sea, he can use larger fireworks and shoot more of them.

“On land, you’re more restricted because of distance requirements between the spectators and the launch sites,” he notes.

Fireworks_6At Bayfront Park, Avins typically uses three barges to launch the fireworks, which are shot out of mortars. There are no people on the barge. The fireworks are launched via wireless remote control from a laptop computer or a portable transmitter, he says. “Some shows are still done with flares or torches,” he says, “but most major displays are launched electronically to avoid accidents.”

If there’s a glitch, his teams always have a spare transmitter to fall back on. He says he’s had situations when one or two mortars didn’t work, but nothing major that would prevent a show from taking place.

Since the fireworks at Bayfront Park are launched from the water, Avins must also adhere to laws protecting sea life. For instance, the barges are not allowed to anchor on or above designated critical habitats. He also has to make sure the launch locations are not close to any nesting areas, and his crews must be on the lookout for any sea turtles or manatees. In addition, the tubes that hold the fireworks are biodegradable. This means that any cardboard and paper debris that falls into the water will break down.

“There is so much paperwork and permits involved, you can’t imagine,” he says. “That’s why it’s a hard business to get into.”

In order to transport the fireworks from his Homestead headquarters to the shows Firepower Displays puts on, Avins has to make sure his drivers have the proper commercial driving licenses for ferrying hazardous materials. His trucks are also inspected annually to make sure the vehicles are safe for transporting the highly flammable explosives.

On the day of the Bayfront Park show, it will take a crew of approximately six technicians to set up and launch the fireworks. But Avins will have a total of about 20 employees on the ground.

When it comes to dealing with Miami’s summer downpours, Avins has also developed techniques to keep the fireworks dry. “Depending on how heavy the rain is, we either delay the launch or postpone it to the following day,” he says. “I’m hoping the weather cooperates this year and we have a nice Fourth of July for everybody.”

 

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