Valley Air District ignites change in firework shows

Drone light shows, which could replace fireworks, against a night sky background. (pornpun on AdobeStock)

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District rolls out $50,000 incentives to fund clean-air alternatives to fireworks shows

SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY – Event organizers who wish to light up the skies, but not a pyrotechnic fuse, at a Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve celebration this year can take advantage of a program that is test-flying a transition away from fireworks.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (Valley Air District) opened applications to its Clean Alternatives to Fireworks Pilot Incentive Program on Feb. 5; applications are due by 5 p.m. on March 1. Due to high levels of pollutants released by fireworks, the air district’s governing board approved the pilot program at its meeting on Nov. 30, 2023.

“Various toxic chemicals present in fireworks emissions are particularly harmful to human health and continue to be a public health concern across the region,” a Valley Air District spokesperson said.

According to the Valley Air District, the area historically experiences poor air quality on evenings with significant firework activity, specifically around the New Year’s Eve and Independence Day holidays. Firework emissions contribute to fine particulate matter concentrations in the air, which negatively impacts air quality. 

A staff report from the air district provided to the governing board said that studies have found 60-85% of emissions from fireworks are in the ultrafine particle size range. Smaller particles are more likely to be inhaled deeper and contribute to adverse health effects, such as asthma and heart disease.

Air quality and public health impacts become intensified in neighborhoods where street-level and illegal fireworks are commonly used, the air district said. Further, fireworks — especially illegal fireworks set off by the public — can cause injury to individuals and start residential fires and wildfires.

“In light of these challenges, the district is offering incentives to entities to reduce or eliminate large-scale fireworks shows and supplement or replace those shows with drone light shows to reduce the public’s exposure to firework pollution,” Valley Air District said.

Both public and private entities are eligible to apply to the program, including state and federal agencies, counties, cities, special districts, school districts, nonprofits and private organizations. The program will fund events that are for Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve celebrations along with other celebratory public outdoor events.

To be eligible, the event must be hosted at a venue that can accommodate large-scale public events and is within the boundaries of the Valley Air District, which encompasses Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare counties, as well as the Valley portion of Kings County.

According to the program guidelines, applicants must also show that the event will substantially reduce large-scale fireworks use, such as by reducing or transitioning away from fireworks for an event that has historically put on a large-scale fireworks show, or by the formation of a new event that would use an alternative in lieu of fireworks.

Valley Air District will fund up to $50,000 per event, and each applicant may only apply for one event per year. The grant will cover contractor costs for the approved clean alternative and permitting and issuance costs.

Funding will be granted to applicants that are eligible and complete on a first-come, first-served basis; the air district has a total of $250,000 available for the program.

Accepted alternatives to fireworks are drone light shows that are conducted by contractors with the appropriate licensing and registration requirements — meaning drones must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration and flown by licensed drone pilots — and laser light shows that follow protocols outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Drones can make an awe-inducing alternative

While not yet widespread, using drone light shows in place of fireworks is gaining traction across the country.

In the San Joaquin Valley, Clovis-based company Skye Dreams puts on drone light shows for all types of clients. Deb Toews, who owns the company with her husband Terry, said they do large-scale public events, but also like to work with nonprofits and schools, and receive calls to do shows at graduations.

“A drone light show company is a new form of high-tech entertainment for the community,” Toews said. “I tell people what we do is we bring joy to folks through music and lights, with the lights on the drones in the air.”

To put on a drone light show, companies use drones that can emit bright, colorful lights and be programmed and flown to form different images while changing colors.

Toews said that they can make images of people, animals, objects, logos and spell out words in text. The more drones there are in a show, the more detailed the images can be. Additionally, Skye Dreams choreographs their light shows with music to make a more engaging, immersive experience, Toews said.

While fireworks shows are a tradition beloved by many, Toews said she has not come across anyone who has been disappointed by the drone shows. She said that personally, seeing detailed images and words in the sky makes the experience even more spectacular.

Most people are wowed and amazed that they can put a few hundred drones up into the air, and Toews said she especially loves to see kids at shows, because they’ll have fun trying to guess what image is coming next.

One big advantage of drone light shows other than reducing air pollution is that they can eliminate the negative noise impacts fireworks have on certain communities and animals, Toews said.

Loud booms from fireworks can be triggering for people with PTSD, and also often spike anxiety in pets. Toews said that with the drone shows, they can even program the drones to look like fireworks without the accompanying sounds and fire hazards.

With those impacts in mind, Toews said she heard about the Valley Air District’s program just recently, and is really excited to see it.

“I think it’s really innovative of the air pollution district to come up with this grant program,” Toews said. “I think it will help open the door for more drone light shows, and especially for the folks that may not have the bigger budgets to be able to bring in a drone light show.”

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