December 12, 2019

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Having a blast

It's fireworks — literally — between Archangel and Red Bomb as the two firms battle for pyrotechnic supremacy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/6/2018 (531 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SELKIRK — You'd think some of the product at Red Bomb Fireworks was designed with Manitoba in mind.

Fireworks names like Northern Lights, Cabin Fever, Big Dipper, Frostbite, Gone Fishin', and, ahem, Blue Bomber, suggest the work of budding arsonists in our midst.

They are. Matt and Brandi Bialek, the couple behind Red Bomb Fireworks in Selkirk who are now the biggest distributor of consumer fireworks in Western Canada, have custom-made almost a third of their fireworks stock.

Gone Fishin', for example, is so home-grown its package is a caricature of a moustached man in a green floppy hat, standing in an open boat while jigging a fishing rod. It's Matt's dad, Randy.

An authentic American ammunition box is used as packaging at Red Bomb Fireworks.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

An authentic American ammunition box is used as packaging at Red Bomb Fireworks.

"Then we have our bad-ass ones like Hellraiser, Zombie Apocalypse, Undertaker," said Brandi, as well as the Flaming Schoolbus, an upgrade of the Burning School House.

"The old Burning Schoolhouse really sucks by today's standards," said Matt. It was a fountain-style firework that shot sparks out the chimney before burning to the ground.

"Our Flaming Schoolbus is a maximum-load finale cake that fires 36 coloured and crackling flowers — with fish effects (short fuses that dart around in the sky) — to over 30 metres in height."

"Blowed up real good," in other words, to borrow the vernacular of SCTV alumni Joe Flaherty and the late John Candy, in their famous skit portraying movie reviewers who like things that explode.

With Canada Day approaching, it's that time of year again for fireworks — and that includes the fireworks going on between industry rivals.

One of the original founders of Red Bomb is featured on the packaging of this set of fireworks.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

One of the original founders of Red Bomb is featured on the packaging of this set of fireworks.

Winnipeg-based Archangel Fireworks has opened three new outlets this year, taking a page out of Red Bomb's book by retailing out of mobile units. Two of Archangel's new outlets are right in the vicinity of Red Bomb stores.

Red Bomb started out by selling fireworks from an old school bus parked along Highway 59 at Birds Hill Provincial Park. It still has a school bus there, plus one on Highway 1 just west of the Steinbach turnoff, and on Highway 8 near the St. Andrews Airport. In addition to its Selkirk location, it opened a second brick and mortar store at 1838 Portage Avenue in 2016.

This year Archangel opened three mobile units, including a trailer at the Fifty-Niner Restaurant on Highway 59 for people driving out to their cottages — and before reaching the Red Bomb school bus farther north.

Archangel also has a trailer on Main Street at Chuck's Landscaping, across from the Larter's Golf Course, and a rail container at the junction of St. Anne's Road and the Perimeter Highway. That's in addition to their longstanding brick and mortar location on Pembina Highway near Confusion Corner.

"The fireworks industry is very competitive," explained Candice Mitchell, Archangel general manager. "We're trying different places, and trying not to be on top of Red Bomb. We like to play well in the sandbox."

Two of Archangel's new outlets are right in the vicinity of Red Bomb stores.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Two of Archangel's new outlets are right in the vicinity of Red Bomb stores.

The new locations can draw in people leaving town for the weekend, she said. While a permit is required to use fireworks inside the city — free of charge from the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service at 185 King Street — it is not usually required outside Winnipeg. However, fireworks are banned in provincial and national parks.

"We're just testing the market," said Mitchell. "I'm pretty sure we'll be at the Fifty-Niner location forever. It's such a high visibility place. Whether the other two are shifted next year, I don't know."

Where Archangel departs from Red Bomb is it performs the big displays like the fireworks shows at the Forks and Winnipeg Goldeyes games. Those require commercial-size fireworks, not the ones retailed to consumers.

For Canada's 150th birthday last year, Archangel supplied the commercial fireworks for 68 large shows across the country. About 50 of the shows were run either by Archangel staff or people it contracts, Mitchell said.

Matt and Brandi Bialek operate two businesses. Matt runs Blast-Off Fireworks, the distribution arm, while Brandi runs Red Bomb Fireworks, the retail arm.

A view of the Red Bomb Fireworks customer store in Selkirk.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A view of the Red Bomb Fireworks customer store in Selkirk.

Matt started the fireworks business out of his parents' garage right after high school. Blast-Off now exports its fireworks to 3,700 retail outlets across Western Canada. It's also the only company in Western Canada that customizes its own products, Bialek said.

It doesn't make its own fireworks. They are all made in China as they have been virtually since fireworks were invented.

But the Bialeks can jig the formula. For example, a lot of people in Manitoba request spinners and whistles, so Blast-Off will tailor the product to the market. For example, it might instruct the manufacturers to add spinners on shots 1-5, and whistles on shots 6-10.

It also makes fireworks based on colours like blue bursts for the Blue Bomber, and green bursts for the Rough Rider (boo).

Brandi and an in-house designer develop the artwork and package, and the products are trademarked. The whole process, including federal government approval, can take up to two years for a new product. "The benefit is we can design product exclusive to our stores," Matt said.

 A Red Bomb Fireworks original creation.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A Red Bomb Fireworks original creation.

"Cakes" are the biggest seller these days. You light one fuse and multiple fireworks strapped together fire off in sequence.

Matt ran the fireworks business on weekends while he earned degrees from University of Manitoba Asper School of Business. He performed fireworks shows for campgrounds and country fairs.

After graduating and spending two years in an office as an intern, he realized office life wasn't for him. He now operates the 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Selkirk, that includes a storefront, that's usually full to the rafters with fireworks. He also has 40 container freight cars filled with fireworks on the company's grounds.

For that reason, walking through the Bialeks' facility in the Selkirk Industrial Park is a bit like the opening montage of TV show Get Smart, where steel doors open and slam shut as Agent 86 Maxwell Smart makes his way to the office. The doors here aren't steel but you have to use an electronic security badge to open at least three doors to get anywhere.

There are also more surveillance monitors on the premises than there are channels in the typical Winnipeg household, except you can watch these channels all at the same time.

 An employee packages a summer themed assortment of fireworks at Red Bomb.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

An employee packages a summer themed assortment of fireworks at Red Bomb.

Could he blow up Selkirk from an accidental ignition? Matt is asked. He laughed nervously but said, in a word, no.

First of all, the distribution centre is on an 18-acre site. That's the buffer required by law for containment of an accident.

Secondly, the fireworks are kept in cells with walls rated for three hours of protection before a fire advances. There is also a large sprinkler system. As well, the box board the fireworks come in help contain much of an accidental explosion.

"So you'd have a very hot fire, lots of smoke, and lots of colour," he said.

Containment is more serious in Archangel's case as it carries the much larger commercial fireworks for the big shows. Its warehouse is outside the city but Mitchell wouldn't say anything more than that.

Matt Benzie with Archangel, puts together a bundle of fireworks.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Matt Benzie with Archangel, puts together a bundle of fireworks.

The market for fireworks is changing. The latest in firework events are "gender reveal parties." That's where someone, say a mother or sister of the pregnant woman, receives information on the fetus gender from a physician, and keeps it a secret to reveal at a party. Fireworks outlets sell smoke bombs in all blue or all pink, depending on the gender, and other fireworks specifically in those colours.

"Gender reveals are huge right now," said Mitchell.

Another new fireworks movement is memorials. Red Bomb had two memorial requests last week: one for a person deceased and one for a person terminally ill.

Where to see fireworks

Click to Expand

Since the fireworks display at Assiniboine Park has been cancelled because of its proximity to the Diversity Gardens project, many are wondering where the big Canada Day fireworks show will be held.

The big show happens at The Forks at 11 p.m. on Canada Day.

There will also be fireworks at Assiniboia Downs on Canada Day following the races.

As well, there will be a fireworks show near Bourkevale Community Centre on Ferry Road at 11 p.m. on June 30.

In the case of the former, the family holds a fireworks display every year to celebrate that person's life. In the case of the latter, the fireworks show was held in a place so the person could watch through a bedroom window.

Canada Day is the biggest day of the year for fireworks but it's got a lot of company. "Wherever you hear the word celebrate, that's where we are," said Mitchell. "Bachelor parties, bar mitzvahs, weddings. It's not just community events anymore. People are looking for that extra wow factor."

Both Red Bomb and Archangel offer instructions and packages that are numbered so the biggest firework is saved for last.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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