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Burning Man has proved once again that Black Rock City is where fire art is celebrated, revered, enjoyed by thousands, and pushed to its reasonable limits. Fire art in 2004 ran the gambit, from simple to complex, intimate fires to roaring blazes, complex flame effects to spectacular pyrotechnics. Some festivals may have a big fire, maybe one or two fire art projects, but no other event embraces fire in the way Burning Man has.

The Performance Safety team (PST) was established in 1997 as an oversight group that brings together artists, fire safety personnel, and industry professionals. The aim of this group is to communicate with and provide experienced support for artists, both pre-event and on-site, to ensure the safe use of open fire, flame effects, and pyrotechnics at the Burning Man event.

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An example of a simple flame effects sculpture is The Wheel of the Sacred Earth Year, which inspired participants to interact with it and each other in the light and warmth of the fire. One installation with complex flame effects was the Fire Jet (El Diablo), which created its own perimeter just from the sheer amount of heat it produced.

Our agreements with the federal government appear in stipulations on our event permit from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). For public safety reasons, artworks that incorporate open fire, flame effects, and/or pyrotechnics require approval in the form of a laminate (license). The Performance Safety team issues the appropriate laminate once the artwork has been approved. The multiple-step process for approval is intended not to bog down the artist but to assure adherence to all safety regulations. The team acts as advocates of safe fire art. In this role, we have to the best of our ability created guidelines that keep participants unharmed yet give them opportunities for intimate experiences with small fires, the danger of huge flame effects, and awe of spectacular burns. All fire artists, no matter what kind of flame classification they incorporate into their artwork, must first accept the responsibility for safe practices, which include communication, securing perimeters, and the spirit of flexibility when artwork is ready for ignition.

In 2004, the team welcomed several new additions to its ranks, including specialists in propane and pyrotechnics. With their years of experience, the new team members added a wealth of knowledge. In 2003, we had noticed a rise in the use of flame effects by mutant vehicles, so we made adjustments in 2004, placing two members of the PST on staff with the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) crew each night to help process and educate the growing ranks of mobile fire artists.

Returning artists and new ones brought fire art energy to the playa in 2004. Without any rise in the number of flame effects art, the team did see a rise in the amount of fuel used by the artists. In 2003, flame effects consumed 1,600 gallons of propane; for 2004 we used over 2,300 gallons.

Returning artists have been perfecting their effects and skills. Noted projects for this year were: "The Seven Sisters" from the Flaming Lotus Girls, Thermís "Extra Small Array", Nathan Smithís "Singularity Machine", and Joe Bardís "Pendulum of Fire".

To Burn or Not to Burn

As much as Burning Man encourages open fire artwork, we have found that less and less artwork is set on fire year after year. A common complaint with burning is the expense and transportation of materials. This factor seems to limit artists in their attempts to create successful large burns on the open playa.

Burning Man added a partial solution to the cityís infrastructure starting in 2000, when 18 public burn platforms were placed on the open playa, to be available for burning any time. They were so successful, they were over utilized, and burn scaring around the platforms resulted from participants overloading the platforms.

Another solution to burning art is the invitation to reuse any approved burn platform where the original artwork has finished burning. Examples would be the Manís platform, David Bestís temple sites, and the Pagoda of Infinite Reflection.

Fuel Management

In 2004, the Black Rock City Gas Works broadened its scope to include the management of liquid fuels (gasoline and diesel) used at the event, forming a new team, Black Rock Fuels. From the moment powered equipment moves onto the playa, it needs fuel. Generators set up for power need large amounts of diesel fuel every day. Heavy equipment such as boom lifts, trenchers, bobcats, forklifts, etc. all need fuel. If the fuel stops, the power and work come to a halt.

Requirements for artistsí propane, the Commissary, and the Department of Public Works (DPW) fleet and heavy equipment have grown to the point where an on-site refilling station was needed. In the past, all fuel was either brought in numerous small containers, or staff had to leave the playa to get fuel in town, with problems of lost time, added risk on the road, and excessive spillage and waste due to the need to transfer fuel multiple times between purchase and end use.

Power Needs

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The generators for the Black Rock City power grid consume great amounts of diesel fuel. Some use over 100 gallons per day, and over a dozen large generators run on the playa. Sierra Fuels for the second year provided daily deliveries to the main generators and refrigerator units. During the peak of the event, some generators needed to be topped off late at night to make sure that they had enough fuel to remain on line until the fuel vendor arrived the next day. This need must be met, or power outages would result. We created a fuel truck by fitting a stake-side flat-bed rental truck with two tanks of 100 gallons each - one for gas, and one for diesel - wired with two electric pumps with fuel use meters. During the event, a fuel team member with a radio is on duty at all times.

DPW Needs

DPW used over 300 gallons of gasoline a day and a good amount of diesel fuel for heavy equipment. While the fill-ups themselves were not large, they continued both day and night. To accommodate these needs, Black Rock Fuels built a refill station complete with pumps and its own spill-containment vessel. Fueling needs can force someone to stand in the sun alongside a trencher waiting for 1 gallon of gas or sitting on a forklift all the way out at the Temple of Stars needing 30 gallons of diesel. The fuel is always needed immediately to keep the work going. Again, the fuel truck worked well to meet the need of those who could not come to the fuel station.

Artist and Commissary Propane Needs

Each morning, the propane crew followed the strangest route in the west, usually finishing by 1 or 2 p.m. Propane users came to the fuel station to fill bottles, or we went to those who needed large amounts of fuel. The propane is used almost entirely by the Commissary and artists. The propane truck proved itself invaluable once again, delivering over 2800 gallons. We could not possibly have transported this much fuel back and forth from Gerlach.

Biodiesel Test

In 2004, Black Rock Fuels ran a test, using B-100 biodiesel fuel in the generator at the Greeters Station during the event.

For 2005, Black Rock City Fuels plans on increasing its on-site storage capacity. We will also add a dedicated diesel delivery truck to remain on call for generator filling that cannot be met by the vendorís daily delivery. We plan on continuing our tests of biodiesel, and more information will appear in our 2005 report.

How can Burning Man help artists who want to burn their artwork safely, while protecting the playa and without going into debt? This question poses a challenge for 2005, and a better solution is in the works. More burn platforms will be in order for the future, and we are in the process of creating other infrastructure to solve this problem.

Submitted by,
Crimson Rose and Dave X End of page

Click here to read the 2003 Performance Safety Team report