Painting The Sky

For more than three decades, Dominion Fireworks has set the stage for spectacular displays.

Photo by Embetts3 Photography

fireworks on Appomattox River in Hopewell

A Dominion Fireworks display at Fireworks on the Appomattox River in Hopewell. 

Peonies, chrysanthemums, crossettes, dahlias, falling leaves, crackling rain, waterfalls—random natural elements an artist would incorporate into a painting? Or names of the types of fireworks a different kind of artist would use to paint the sky? If you guessed the latter, then you’re talking William Bulifant III’s language. 

Photo by Adam Ewing

William Bulifant III

William “Bubba” Bulifant III of Dominion Fireworks.

Known by most folks as Bubba—a name that’s followed him since he was small—Bulifant first became interested in pyrotechnics when he was around 8 years old. “I liked watching them. They didn’t scare me,” recalls Bulifant, whose Southern drawl betrays his Virginia roots.  

His dad started a small fireworks business in the 1960s, and Bulifant began helping with the shows. While pursuing a career in law enforcement, he launched his own business, Dominion Fireworks, in 1984. After retiring from 20 years on the force, Bulifant devoted himself full time to the business of thrilling folks with fireworks. 

Today his Petersburg-based company is known regionally for its high-quality displays, dazzling viewers across the state and beyond. Together with his team of pyrotechnicians, Bulifant produces as many as 125 shows per year, ranging from full-fledged presentations shot from a barge off the Virginia Beach Oceanfront to smaller shows for businesses and weddings.

Bulifant can talk “all day long” about his passion for pyrotechnics and waxes poetic about the art of creating memorable shows. “A lot of fireworks are named after flowers,” he says. “I love them all.”

Crossettes are his favorite. “When this shell explodes, there are many different sets of what look like crosses high in the sky … a really beautiful firework,” he says. He talks about creating scenes with the fireworks and how color and music are such important components. 

The most expensive displays are often choreographed to music, Bulifant says. This means the explosions and effects are timed to occur in sync with the music. Such shows are pre-programmed in the office by a specially trained staff member. 

Photo by Adam Ewing

dominion fireworks

An electronic firing system used by Dominion Fireworks. 

“For every minute of fireworks choreographed to music, it takes three hours of programming,” Bulifant says. “He or she will listen to the actual music that will be used over and over until every cue is exact to the note of the music when the fireworks will be fired.”

Fireworks fall into three categories: aerial, static, and close proximity, he explains. How many feet of clearance are required depends on the type of firework being used, with aerials requiring the most and close proximity requiring the least. The latter can be shot from rooftops, parking decks, even in front of buildings for opening day events. 

Business has grown by “leaps and bounds,” and Bulifant credits his company’s professional service, quality programs, and attention to detail as factors. “I never thought I would see the growth that we have made.” Along with his company’s expansion has come an increase in laws, rules, and regulations. Transportation of fireworks, for example, is highly regulated and requires operators to obtain a commercial driver’s license with a hazardous materials endorsement. 

Bulifant is proud of his company’s safety record. “We have safety rules for every step of the operation—whether it’s working in the shop, working with fireworks, or working on a show,” he says. “Safety is everything here.”

On the wall of Bulifant’s office is a commendation letter from the City of Virginia Beach, which his father received after he helped with the Neptune Festival fireworks show in 1982. “Your son, Bubba, did an excellent job,” it reads. 

Mike Zeman, director of stadium operations for the Norfolk Tides, says Dominion Fireworks’ shows are always excellent. “Bubba makes sure the shows are safe and enjoyable for our fans and his crew,” he comments. “The shows are always changing with some of the newest shells and cakes available.”

“We take all programs serious and personal,” says Bulifant, who recalls one very special fireworks display his company did to celebrate the life of someone in a very big way. After an eight-minute fireworks show for a crowd of 2,000 guests, everything came to “a screeching halt,” says Bulifant. 

Photo courtesy of Dominion Fireworks

dominion fireworks

The Dominion Fireworks team prepares a display on a barge in Yorktown.

“Someone announced that the ashes would be going up next,” he says. After a dramatic pause, fireworks exploded above in cascades of blue, which was the deceased’s favorite color, followed by a “spectacular finale.” 

The coronavirus pandemic has meant cancellations and postponements, says Bulifant. “No one here is mad, but we’re going to be very busy after the virus.” He says two factory explosions in China last fall had an impact on the supply of fireworks available for import. He bought extra last year and extra this year. “We got enough to get us through this,” he says. “Everything works out because shows are being postponed.” 

One thing Bulifant promises is you won’t fall asleep during any of his fireworks shows. He can’t wait to get back out there under a sky full of stars and watch the faces of people light up with anticipation as the whistle of a shell soars up to the sky, exploding in colorful brocades with a boom that echoes all around. 

Celebrating special events with fireworks will have even more meaning after the pandemic ends, Bulifant predicts. “The future looks bright.” 

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