Bright Light, Fake City

Burning Man's own brand of art


Greg Briggs likes to shoot fire.

He recently created a DJ-controlled flamethrower that shoots tongues of fire out over a crowd in time with music. At first, most people yell out in surprise and duck. Then a wave of energy passes through the crowd.

"[Fire] works so well with music. I never was much of an art person but I love the look of the fire going off," Briggs said. "The heat also appeals to another set of senses."

By day, this pyrotechnician actually fights fires as a 13-year veteran of the Boise Fire Department. But this week, Briggs is at Burning Man in the Nevada desert with his fiery creations.

Briggs has been a firefighter since 1988, first as a volunteer in Colorado where he earned an associate's degree in fire science and a bachelor's degree in fire administration. He moved to Boise in 1995.

In 2004, Briggs traveled to Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, about 120 miles north of Reno, Nev. Burning Man, which began as a small group of people gathering on a beach in San Francisco, has evolved into a community of up to 48,000 people participating in a weeklong festival dedicated to self-reliance, self-expression, music and art.

Every night fire turns into art at Black Rock City—as Burning Man's temporary camp is called—in the form of art projects. Fire dancers are next to fire spinners with hula hoops, staffs, swords and fire eaters. The festival culminates in the burning of the Man, a 40-foot tall wooden figure that marks the center of Black Rock City.

After his first Burning Man experience, Briggs was hooked on the power and the emotions fire engenders, and when he returned in 2006, he joined the show at Opulent Temple, a nightclub in the desert.

"I saw [Opulent Temple's] effect in 2006 and liked it, so I built my own set. In 2007, I camped with them, and their set was broken," Briggs said. He came to the rescue, setting up his two flamethrowers on top of the DJ booth. "From then on, I became the fire guy," he said.

"Fire is very powerful to the human psyche," explained Tamara Li, one of the founders of the Flaming Lotus Girls, a San Francisco-based group of artists who create large-scale fire art. "Fire is very visceral, it affects all the different senses. You can hear, feel, smell and even taste it. To be so close to such a powerful element that can grow from nothing to gigantic proportions is exciting to people."

Professional firefighters know this feeling as well as anyone.

"Part of the reason people love fire is that they think they can control it," explained Boise Fire Marshal Dave Hanneman.

"You know it is dangerous if left uncontrolled, but you are trying to control it," Hanneman said. "You couldn't pay someone enough to run into a burning building unless they wanted to go."

He explained that 90 percent of firefighters in the country are volunteers.

"They are not there for the pay, but for the excitement of going in there. It's like going into battle: you against fire. It helps give you respect," he said.

Fire as art has spread beyond the Burning Man festival. Many Boiseans are finding the art form fascinating.

Mark Ickes, one of the organizers of the Fire on the Grove event in April, agrees that fire dancing is becoming more mainstream because of its increased visibility and accessibility.

Burning Man is also the motivation for the Fire Kittens, an all-female fire arts group in Boise.

Since 2002, the Fire Kittens have performed at private parties, backyard barbecues, downtown venues such the Blues Bouquet and Rose Room, and at the Oregon County Fair and Burning Man.

This past year, fire dancing has also been part of local events at the Modern Hotel and at Krakoosh, an art and furniture store that brought in fire dancers for its grand opening in April.

While it's art, there is a large degree of science in controlling open flame.

Briggs knows how fire behaves and how to manage the risks. After more than two decades of firefighting, Briggs has three tips: Look five steps into the future, see what's coming and avoid "tunnel vision" or "the moth to the candle" effect.

This is why he uses propane in his acts, which is much safer than liquid fuels. "What doesn't burn, which isn't much, gets thinned out below its flammable range in just moments," Briggs said.

Each of Briggs' flamethrowers (known as poofers) consists of a 5- or 6-foot-long half-inch pipe attached to a propane tank, like the ones used for barbecue grills, which is connected to a larger tank. This creates is a perpetual flame, like a supercharged tiki torch. But at the push of a button, additional propane shoots up the pipe sending a giant flame into the air with a loud whoosh. This flame can be up to 18 feet long and 6 feet in diameter. Briggs' son calls it "dragon's breath."

Briggs' biggest fear is not that the flamethrowers will light something or someone on fire. It's the fear that a cannon may fall over and be pointed at the crowd right when it is turned on.

At Burning Man, the Flaming Lotus Girls have a fire safety crew on deck every night at their interactive art piece—this year consisting of 13 metal, generative "seedpods" shaped into a giant sinuous, evolving plant-like formation called Mutopia. Observers can initiate sequenced patterns for the multiple fire effects, LED lights and steam.

The Flaming Lotus Girls also run a fire safety class for group members who have not installed a fire art piece before to teach them how to deal with the different fuel effects and how to use a fire extinguisher.

According to their Web site: "How best to deal with a flaming human is all part of the class and it is important when there are so many people out there ... dressed in fake fur who will climb and try to grab, hot flaming metal pieces of art."

At this year's Burning Man, Briggs has set up his seven large flamethrowers designed specifically for Opulent Temple—two for the DJ booth and five for each point of the star-shaped raised dance floor.

But Briggs' obsession is not with fire itself. Instead, he's focused on the crowd's reaction.

"That's where all the excitement is," he explained. "I love to see people think and dream and get excited ... to get out of the box and break the monotony."

Judi Brawer practices law and fire spinning in Boise. She is burning in the Black Rock Desert this week.