Perf Saftey Team

Burning Man is a unique place for artists to exhibit their work. It provides an environment that accommodates extinguishing an artwork with fire, where that concept is integral to its creation. Whether fire consumes or complements a piece, it must do so in a responsible way.

The Performance Safety Team (PST) was established in 1997 as the oversight group to assist those creating art with fire or flame effects and to communicate the inherent hazards. Any fire artist working with any kind of flame must first accept the need for responsible practices. Next in importance are communication, secure perimeters, a spirit of flexibility about when the artwork will burn, and provisions to protect the playa surface.

The Man’s place as the epicenter of fire-related art was once again proved on the playa in 2003. This year we also saw an increase in the number, quality, and technical complexity of fire-related pieces. Liquid propane gained popularity as fuel in artwork such as B-12, Pillar of Fire, and Fire Grid. The community burned 1,800 gal. of propane, 600 gal. of kerosene, 100 gal. of naphtha, and 100 plus gal. of methanol, all in the name of art. To the credit of all participants involved, no one was seriously burned in 2003. Some of these artists have been refining their skills for years and sharing what they have learned with other members of the fire art community, helping fire art to mature into a serious genre of its own. Increasing complexity of fire art and the growing use of liquid propane both increase the risk of a serious accident on the playa. Therefore, all future projects will require even more competent and thorough inspections.

Besides these large fire installations, this year also saw an unexpected rise in use of fire on art cars. This surprise forced the team to volunteer nightly at the Department of Mutant Vehicles. This year PST added new members who brought diverse professional backgrounds and levels of commitment. For 2004, we will make an effort to plan more carefully for stronger numbers.

The relationships between fire artists, the Black Rock City Volunteer Fire Department (BRCVFD), and the PST blossomed this year. The fire department listened openly to the artists to learn how their pieces worked and turned out for tests that needed their presence. The artists in turn openly discussed the workings of their art, made changes based on suggestions, and asked for help when needed. This cooperation marks a change from past years, when some artists kept real information on their fire art from the BRCVFD in the hopes that they could escape oversight.

Fire artists are ingenious participants whose creative efforts continue to expand frontiers. Because of the variation in fire art that is surfacing at Burning Man, new classifications have been created to help the PST determine the severity of danger.

  • Open flame (OF) – This category encompasses art with candles, torches, or fire barrels or that is simply set on fire.
  • Flame effects (FE) – These pieces incorporate automated, switched, or pressurized flames or any other action by fire other than simply consuming the artworks. Projects using propane or liquid fuels are examples.
  • Pyrotechnics (P) – Burning Man’s definition of pyrotechnic art includes any pieces that use explosives, projectiles, or fireworks. All pyrotechnic special effects material used in any art installation or performance must be of Class C or below. Absolutely no fireworks of Class B or higher are permitted at the event.

Once the fire art has been approved on the playa, a laminate for the specific classification is issued. This process worked in most cases, but miscommunication between the art department and one artist had a disastrous effect. The artist was given a laminate but not official approval to start burning the work. The artist set the artwork on fire just as the wind came up, sending sparks flying down the playa and threatening other works of art. The BRCVFD was called in to put the artwork out, and overuse of water caused other problems. The bottom line for any acceptable fire art is that it cannot threaten property or other artwork. That unfortunate incident reminds us that nature makes the rules on the playa, no matter what we participants may plan. In the future, better instructions will be given to ensure that the correct procedures are understood and followed by artists.

The number and sizes of artwork in the open flame category fluctuate year by year. This group included several major artworks this year: the Man, Temple of Honor, Johnny on the Spot, and House of Cards. The question again in 2003 was not so much To Burn or Not to Burn, but HOW artists chose to burn. For the fourth year in a row, the Man and its platform were positioned on top of a giant burn blanket covered with sand. Once again, absolutely no burn scaring resulted, despite the intense heat produced when the Man expired in pyrotechnic splendor.

After the 2002 event, the high level of propane usage indicated that we needed to improve our education about that fuel. Members of the PST received training from the Nevada State Liquefied Petroleum Dealers Association (NSLPDA). During a series of sessions in Las Vegas and Gerlach, they were schooled and tested in the practices and principles of propane use and dispensing operations from filling trucks. This training allowed the team to be the first point of inspection for fire artists using propane. Our increased awareness of the correct standards for propane tanks and fittings will help the team watch for any unsafe conditions.

Submitted by,
Crimson Rose & Dave X