Things That Can Go Wrong

A look at some of the things that can go wrong in a fireworks display and how to avoid them.

Whilst the majority of firework displays conclude without incident, from time to time something may go wrong. This could be something minor such as a firework failing to light, through to something more serious like a firework tipping over. In this article, based on the experience of myself and my fellow enthusiasts, I’ll take a look at such events and what you can do to avoid them.

It should be stressed that serious firework accidents, although well publicised, are rare. As you will see in this article, the proper setting up of your fireworks can mitigate against nearly all of these potential problems. My video How Dangerous Are Fireworks? looks at firework injury statistics vs. other injuries for those interested.

Fireworks failing to light

This does happen occasionally and more so in wet weather, where the rain or damp has been able to find its way to the fuse. Damp fuses are very hard to light. There are also cases (more rare) where the fuse itself has been damaged and the internal powder has a break in it, preventing the fuse continuing to burn down.

You can help to avoid this happening by:

  • Taking care when removing fuse covers and extending fuses (which means easing them away from the firework’s casing slightly, not directly pulling on them) not to twist or bend the fuse.
  • Ensuring your fireworks are waterproofed if setting out early or rain is expected.
  • If you’re not fully waterproofing your fireworks but they will be out for a short time before firing, place cakes, barrages and similar on wooden boards when staking them out, to keep them off damp or wet ground.
  • If you’re taking your fireworks out one at a time to fire and it’s wet, keep the fuses covered until the very last moment before you fire.
  • If firing by hand, use a lighting device with a very strong flame to ensure you get a good light on the fuse, you can find suggestions in the Lighting Fireworks By Hand article.
  • If firing remotely, use igniters designed for visco fuse (consumer e-matches or Talons) and ensure your igniters do not short out as they enter the firing system or module (as this will pass a continuity test but likely fail to ignite).

If you have a failure with a dual-fused item such as a cake or barrage, then you have a reserve fuse which you can attempt to light. However it is not recommended that you try this immediately, instead wait for long enough to ensure the firework is definitely not going to start (safety labels on such items suggest 5 minutes, so you could continue with the rest of the display in the meantime) and then light it, ensuring no part of your body is ever directly over the firework. If the reserve fuse also fails then it is likely that your fireworks have gotten damp, either in storage or during set up.

If your failed item is a single fuse item it’s a little harder, since if the fuse has burned down to any extent it can be dangerous to try and relight it. If there’s no fuse left at all then definitely don’t try and light the item by putting a flame where the fuse enters the firework, this can be very dangerous. Instead, treat it as a dud (see below) and leave it alone.

If you are firing remotely and it’s simply a case of nothing happening when you press the button, a couple of checks you can make are firstly that your igniter wires are not shorted out at the firing unit and secondly that everything is switched on, particularly at the very start of the display.

If the igniter starts but fails to light the fuse at all, then an option here is to hand light the firework. You can do this on the primary fuse if the igniter failed or the reserve fuse if the main fuse burned part way then stopped.

Two fuses
Primary and reserve fuses.

Fireworks part-firing

This is only a problem in the sense that it’s a disappointment. There should be no safety issues in terms of your audience since the firework is already set up and secured, it just stops sooner than expected. In most cases the audience will be unaware of this, save for perhaps noticing a gap if you’re trying to fire a continuous show. 

There are no safe ways to try and get a part-fired item going again, so don’t try. Treat it as a dud (see below).

Part-fired firework
This cake fired just one or two shots before stopping, evident by the wrapping still being in place.

Fireworks tipping over

This is one of the most dangerous incidents at a display particularly if the item tips towards the crowd. It is also one of the most frustrating for me to hear about because proper setting up of your fireworks, that is to say securing them from falling over, should mitigate against this problem completely.

Some tips to avoid this:

  • Please, secure your fireworks before firing to ensure they cannot fall over. This is easy to do as explained in my Setting Up Fireworks sections. To be blunt, if you can’t be arsed to bang a wooden stake in the ground and secure a cake with a bit of gaffa tape you probably shouldn’t be handling fireworks!
  • When staking, put the stake crowd side so if the firework breaks free it is more likely to tip away from the crowd. Again, refer to the setting up sections for more help.
  • Try and get into the mindset of staking everything that needs it – even if you feel the firework is bottom-heavy, stable, or the ground seems flat enough. Fireworks can bounce around on grass or soft surfaces from the recoil of each shot.

Fireworks upside down

Sadly, yes this does happen and is entirely user error in not reading the firework’s safety warning label or taking note of which way up the firework should go. The only tip here is to read the label!

Rockets exploding low or on the ground

There are a couple of ways in which this can happen:

  • The rocket stick has been pushed into the ground by mistake, so it cannot take off.
  • The rocket launch tube is bent or kinked or too small for the rocket stick, causing it to get stuck.
  • The rocket is being fired from something other than a tube, such as a bottle (a very bad idea since this can tip over).
  • The rocket’s motor has a defect causing no thrust or to flash through directly to the head (rare).

The advice with rockets is always to check the rocket is free to rise from the tube before firing it, which is easy to do by simply lifting it a little by hand to make sure it’s loose.

In addition, always observe safety distances with rockets and ideally give them the most room by placing them at the back of your display area in case this happens. It is also a great example of why good PPE is essential for firers. I hear a lot of newbies talking about using rockets in very small gardens on the basis that the effect explodes in the air and therefore a long way away. This is a completely wrong way to look at the safety distances on rockets, you should consider what would happen if they explode in the tube!

Low breaking rocket
A low breaking rocket.

Low breaking shots

Very occasionally you might see a shot from a cake or candle that breaks (explodes) much lower than the others or even just above the firework. This can be caused if there’s not enough lift charge for that shot or the firework is damaged. There’s not much you can do about this and it’s another reason why safety distances are so important so the resulting effects won’t reach spectators.

You should also ensure that any significant waterproofing other than clingfilm, such as plastic sheeting or big bags, is removed prior to lighting the item.

You do not need to remove the packaging on top of cakes (which will be red cellophane or paper) unless instructed to do so on the label. The shots will easily blow through this. It has no effect on the height of the effects or the performance of the firework.

Low breaking firework
This low breaking cake shell is of minimal risk to the firer as they are kitted out with good quality PPE.

Fallout and embers over the audience

The hope is that during setting up and with the benefit of a weather forecast showing the wind direction you can ensure your spectators are not downwind of your display. And also that you have sufficient space between the fireworks and the audience.

Remember that rockets usually track into the wind (caused by the wind tipping the stick in flight) which will be more pronounced the stronger the wind.

It should become clear with the first firework if you’re going to run into problems with the fallout and what direction it is travelling in. If it’s obvious that the fireworks’ debris is falling over people then you should stop the display.

If the wind is taking general debris away from spectators but causing rockets to track towards them, consider skipping the rest of the rockets and sticking with your cakes and candles.

Cross-ignition of other fireworks

This is where a spark or low breaking effect from one firework causes another to ignite, usually by falling onto and burning into the firework and starting it off.

You can reduce the risk of this by ensuring that fireworks creating a lot of ground level sparks – fountains and wheels – are situated away from your other items. You should also leave some room between each item, although in practice you don’t need a huge amount (a few feet is fine). 

If you suffer a cross-ignition then providing you have secured all of the other fireworks, this should not be a safety issue since the other firework is going off correctly, just prematurely. It’s unlikely the audience will notice this and in some cases cross-ignition creates a spectacular – if unplanned – double barrage!

Fireworks catching fire

Very occasionally, a firework’s casing may catch fire. This can happen to any type of firework set up on the ground such as a cake or a fountain. In most cases the fire takes hold after the firework has finished its effects and does not in itself pose any risk, though it can be distracting to have an impromptu bonfire in the firing area!

In rare cases with cakes and barrages, sometimes there may be unfired shots still inside (for example if the fire is the result of a misfire). For this reason, you should always give this type of incident a wide berth until either the fire has burned itself out, or there has been sufficient amount of time to be confident in approaching it with a fire extinguisher or hose pipe.

Firework on fire
The remains of a cake that caught fire during the display.

Dealing with duds

If a firework’s fuse burns and it won’t start, part-fires and then stops, or otherwise has a problem that takes it out of your display, you’ll need to handle it with extreme care.

Initially, a problem firework should be left for at least five minutes before approaching it. This is because some of the casing or internal fuse might still be smouldering and it could return to life! However ideally leave it for longer. If you’re firing in your own back garden then the firework can be left in place overnight. If you’re firing at another venue then leave the firework for as long as you can, while you clear up.

If an item is on fire (sometimes the casing of cakes can catch fire) then I recommend giving it a wide berth and letting itself burn out. Approaching while it’s still on fire is dangerous because there might still be some unexploded shots inside.

If you’re not intending to return it to the retailer then it can be left to soak in a bucket of water to render it completely inert before disposing of it. If you’re wanting to take the matter up with whoever sold you the firework, taking photos is often preferable to trying to return the dud (you’ll have to do this anyway if buying mail order since you cannot post the item back).

A final word on firework safety

One of the reasons I started UKFR way back in 1999 was because I had fired over £500 – in nineties money so probably about £2 million today LOL – of fireworks in a back garden display and without any issues, thanks to taking the time to set the fireworks up correctly. I felt that if basic safety advice was available to other consumers, a great deal of firework incidents could be avoided entirely.

So if you have not already done so, please take the time to read through my Setting Up Fireworks sections which contain a great deal of easy to follow advice to help make your display as problem free as possible.