19-21 Aug 2020
International Convention Centre Sydney

Fireworks in debate: Part 1

In this two part investigation we look at how advances in projection mapping can enhance pyrotechnical displays, or even replace them in bushfire-prone areas during summer.

Written by Paul Skelton, Connected magazine

At the time of writing this article, more than 100 fires are burning in New South Wales and Victoria.

The latest figures show that more than 18 million hectares have been destroyed, at least 28 lives have been lost and the native animal population has been decimated.

It’s understandable then that Australia is a nation on edge, and the target of much anxiety during the summer ‘celebratory’ months has been the humble firework.

Many city and town authorities had to reconsider whether to hold fireworks displays for New Year and Australia Day celebrations during extreme fire danger periods. Residents worried about sparks causing fires were calling on councils to cancel or change their plans.

Response across Australia

The official response from the City of Sydney did little to allay these fears:

“We appreciate the concerns people have around holding the event while large parts of Australia are dealing with bushfires and drought. And we’ve heard the calls from people to cancel the event and donate the budget to relief efforts,” the letter began.

“But we can’t cancel the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Even if we could, it would have little practical benefit for affected communities.

“We began preparations for the New Year’s Eve celebrations 15 months ago. This means most of the budget, largely used for crowd safety and cleaning measures, has already been spent.

“Cancelling the event would seriously hurt Sydney businesses. It would also ruin plans for tens of thousands of people from across the country and overseas who have booked flights, hotels and restaurants to be here for New Year’s Eve.”

The letter said the annual fireworks display was watched by a billion people worldwide, showcasing Sydney as a safe, inclusive and attractive place to visit.

Further, the New Year’s Eve celebration generated $130 million for the state economy and supercharged the tourism industry, creating jobs and supporting countless small businesses.

A few weeks later, Canberra and Queanbeyan officials, among others, cancelled Australia Day fireworks because of the bushfires.

ACT acting arts minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said: “Australia Day is an opportunity for us to acknowledge the many Australians engaged in efforts to reduce the harm and trauma caused by bushfires this season.”

Such is the acrimonious nature of the debate that several fireworks companies have decided not to talk to journalists, as they keep being misquoted. It is putting considerable strain on their businesses.

There have even been reports that a Queensland fireworks company was booked for a New Year’s Eve celebration and the event was belatedly cancelled by the local council. The proprietor now has hundreds of thousands of dollars of fireworks for which there is no refund, and secure storage will cost a great deal.

But, are fireworks really that risky, and is there an opportunity for AV professionals to offset any perceived threat?

The AV proposition

Cindi Drennan is founder and director of illuminart, a projection mapping specialist based in the bushfire-affected Blue Mountains region of NSW.

Cindi’s home office is just 2km south of the Gospers Mountain ‘mega fire’, which destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore. Now under control, Cindi was forced to evacuate four times while the fire burned.

Given this proximity, and her 25 years’ experience in projection mapping, you might think she would favour a fireworks ban. However, she doesn’t.

“The risk of fire starting from fireworks is so small because pyrotechnicians do so much careful planning and risk management. If they didn’t, they would never get insurance again and the loss of reputation would put them out of business. They have a great deal of experience and many of them are involved in firefighting too – I don’t think we should be demonising the fireworks industry,” she says.

“illuminart is a collective of artists and technicians around Australia. We work collaboratively from our own communities then come together to put on an event. We have five team members in the Blue Mountains, all of whom have been affected by the fires.

“I had to drop a lot of work, prepare for evacuation and move business records into secure storage.

“Another member of the team has two young children. She had to spend days getting the family out of the mountains then work remotely or take leave.

“Another team member in the lower mountains has been taking days off due to smoke affecting the air quality.”

The effects of the fires, though harrowing to those in the immediate areas, flow on to the broader community as well, as illuminart has had to delay some projects.

“Replacing fireworks with AV is a topic we get asked about every year. In many cases, AV offers an appealing alternative to fireworks, but nevertheless there are lots of assumptions and misunderstandings about these high-impact technologies.

“When it comes to fireworks and projection mapping, people often think you click your fingers and it just happens, because the result feels ‘magical’. They don’t realise that months might go into the making of a show, regardless of the medium.”

Cindi says it’s better to think about how we can evolve the ancient craft of fireworks to suit modern times.

“I worked on the Sydney New Year celebration about a decade ago, so I know how many people work tirelessly to produce this show. All of the programming, pyrotechnics and planning is custom-made for the event.

“When people say it’s a huge amount of money that should be donated to charity, they don’t realise it has already been spent. Cancelling the show would be a waste of money.”

Time for a rethink?

The conventional approach to large-scale events needs a rethink.

“We need to be more adaptive to deal with the fact that the weather is becoming much more unpredictable.

“Our risk assessment and crowd management procedures need to change, and we need a ‘plan B’ in case something needs to be changed.

“Whether it’s fireworks, AV or some other medium, we should be able to adapt, consider circumstances and be more responsive to the feelings of the community. In the case of recent New Year’s Eve fireworks, the communication and the fireworks needed to be able to better integrate a message of hope or healing to help overcome the misinformation, grief and anger.”

Next month, we will look at an example of projection mapping working in conjunction with fireworks and explain the basics of what AV professionals should look for if they plan to enter the market.

If you would like to help Australia’s firefighters, please consider donating to one of the following groups:

NSW Rural Fire Service – www.rfs.nsw.gov.au

Victorian Country Fire Authority – www.cfa.vic.gov.au

CFS Foundation of South Australia – https://cfsfoundation.org.au/

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