Canada Day fireworks in Banff this weekend went off without a bang.
The town switched to a pyrotechnics display like you might see at a rock concert over fireworks for its holiday celebrations going forward, so as not to terrify the thousands of animals, wild and domestic, that live in the area.
“We wanted to minimize the impact on wildlife in the townsite and obviously the surrounding national park, as loud fireworks can be stressful to them,” Deputy Mayor Corrie DiManno said. “And for us, moving to special-effect pyrotechnics helps us to walk the talk, so to speak. We consider ourselves leaders in this area of environmental preservation so we wanted to make sure that we were doing all we can.”
“Anybody who’s had a cat and dog in the vicinity of fireworks knows often what it’s like – you’ve got a pet adapted to an urban environment and often they run away or hide under the bed. So you can imagine the impact that might have on wild animals,” said Reg Bunyan, vice-president of the group that suggested the idea, the Bow Valley Naturalists.
Beyond your whimpering canine, there’s evidence that traditional fireworks displays aren’t good for animals. Birds tend to “flee en masse” from them; the 2010 New Year’s celebration in Beebe, Ark., saw 5,000 blackbirds drop out of the sky, pelting residents in the head. Deer fling themselves into roads and cars. Horses have heart attacks and keel over. Shelters in the United States say the day after Independence Day is the busiest day for them because of all the runaway dogs, terrified and confused by the noise.
Part of the problem was where the fireworks were launched inside the town.
“If fireworks were happening in the downtown core, like perhaps they have in Ottawa and Parliament Hill, it’s probably not that big a deal, but this was actually right beside a very sensitive wildlife area,” Mr. Bunyan said.
The town of Canmore, Alta., also ditched traditional fireworks in favour of “low-noise” fireworks, which operate the same as regular ones but without as big of a “boom” in the sky. Jasper cancelled their Canada Day fireworks altogether because of wildfire concerns.
Low-noise fireworks are gaining popularity elsewhere – the Calgary zoo switched in 2012. Tesco, a British supermarket chain, reported sales doubling as far back as 2009. An Italian town, Collecchio, banned regular fireworks in 2015.
Making quiet fireworks is a fairly straightforward feat of engineering. Fireworks consist of two stages: the propellant charge, which shoots it into the air, and the main body, which contains an explosive charge and the material that makes the pretty patterns. You can control how loud the firework is by changing the chemical composition of the explosive charge and how tightly you wrap it, just as you can control the colours and patterns.
“Traditionally, at least for the last 40 or 50 years, a lot of those bursting charges have been quite energetic,” said John Conkling, a professor of chemistry, emeritus, at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. He literally wrote the book – well, a book – on pyrotechnics.
Regular fireworks tend to use aluminum metal as one of their fuels, which raises the explosion temperature, and the package is usually wrapped very tightly.
“All that pressure builds up inside a tightly wrapped container, and then when it bursts open it goes kaboom,” Prof. Conkling said. “It’s the shock you feel at a fireworks show.“
Quiet fireworks use more black powder, as opposed to metallic powder, and the package is wrapped more loosely.
“The burst that really grabs you – whoa! – is a lower noise level than the really loud, big aerial firework bursts that we’ve gotten used to,” Prof. Conkling said.
And quiet fireworks can actually be more colourful. All fireworks are a balance between “colour-producing material in the shell versus the kaboom-producing material,” Prof. Conkling said, and since quiet fireworks don’t need as much kaboom, they have more room for colours. The explosion is also more concentrated, since the lack of “kaboom” means the colours aren’t flung as far in the sky.
Mr. Bunyan said he enjoys fireworks, but he’s proud of the town council for doing the right thing.
“The vote from town council was unanimous on this issue and they deserve credit,” he said, adding that Canmore’s decision came after Banff’s. “So it’s kind of had a ripple effect amongst some of the other communities that are environmentally aware.”