Burning up

Spire of Fire

Eric Smith, Chief Inspector for the Nevada Liquid Petroleum Gas Board, and his girlfriend, Lynn Gamroth, pose next to Spire of Fire.

Eric Smith, Chief Inspector for the Nevada Liquid Petroleum Gas Board, and his girlfriend, Lynn Gamroth, pose next to Spire of Fire.

Photo By Kyril (Ky) Plaskon

For more information, visit SpireofFire.com or FireArtClass.com.

Inside a rusty steel control booth, fingers punch buttons, and then outside, bursts of gas and fire blast 48 feet into the sky through metal arms and spread around inverted stainless steel pyramids.

Artist Steve Atkins laughs maniacally.

“Reaction comes all way from, ’That’s the coolest thing I have ever seen,’ to, ’That it is frightening’ and people want to move away from it,” he says.

Since the Spire of Fire’s debut in 2010 at Burning Man, it has wowed crowds from downtown Reno to San Bernadino and New Jersey, sometimes with lines 30-people-long all night waiting to run it. Home videos of it are burning up YouTube, showing attendees “playing” the spire like an instrument. It’s called “pyrocussion.”

“It’s a real crowd-pleaser,” says Atkins.

And now it is on the verge of making a permanent home in Las Vegas. He said the Black Rock Arts Foundation is leading the negotiations. Jim Graham, Communications Director for Burning Man, said, “There have been talks, but nothing official has happened.” He also wouldn’t identify who is interested in purchasing the Spire. “We normally don’t comment when we are in the talking phase.”

What we do know is what makes the Spire’s mystique so intriguing. It involves public control and how the flame is discharged, beating against the sides of steel sheets. “No one has taken an accumulator, or accumulated flame effect where you have rapid discharge of gas and fire against a surface,” Atkins said.

Atkins had the idea, but to do it, he enlisted the help of Eric Smith, Chief Inspector for the Nevada Liquid Petroleum Gas Board. “You can feel the concussion of it,” Smith said.

He developed the combination of pipes, ignitors, electricity and electronics to spit fire as Smith imagined. In downtown Reno, they would burn 100 gallons in a two-hour show. At $3 a gallon, it isn’t cheap. The Black Rock Arts Foundation funded the initial feeding of this beast. Smith says the display was one of the first tight urban fire effects in history where hundreds could crowd around safely. From there, the Spire roared to life and stomped across the nation with the Electric Daisy Carnival, where it burned 1600 gallons per night for three nights at each show.

Quickly burning through money may seem like its downfall, but Smith knows it can be a money-maker, and that’s drawn the eyes of Las Vegas.

“There have been talks about wanting to have it automated,” Smith said. “You walk up and say ’that is pretty neat’ and you put in 20 bucks and it goes off for a few minutes.”

He estimates that the Spire of Fire is worth about $200,000, pocket change in the home of billion-dollar casinos built around large-scale fire and water effects. Atkins says that Vegas is considering other large-scale public art, but this is different: “The others are not interactive, they are purely visual.”

Atkins and Smith didn’t expect it to get the attention it has.

“I figured it would be this one time shot,” says Atkins. “I didn’t think it would really have an afterlife. Part of this is dumb luck that I ended up with something aesthetically pleasing.”

Originally, they had planned to cut the Spire into pieces and build something else after its debut in 2010. For now, the Spire sits dormant and dismantled in Smith’s propane-tank littered yard in Washoe Valley waiting for someone to feed it. Cutting it into pieces is no longer an option.

“Probably not,” Atkins says. “If it sits for a few years I might get creative with it. I would rather just install it out in the middle of the desert somewhere.”