Fear of fire

Sparks' policies toward fire art aren't cool, say members of Controlled Burn

Photo By Allison Young

Controlled Burn's website is at http://controlledburnreno.com.

They wear black. They're illuminated by city street lights. Their pupils shrink, focused on the mesmerizing flame at their fingertips. They do not speak, but suddenly crack fuel-covered burning whips, swing blazing canes and fire balls on chains. Tracers of firelight linger in the smoky air. Sparks fly and bounce on the asphalt. Orange-blue stripes of ignited fuel on the ground stroke their dancing feet. Among the battery of fuel cans, extinguishers and heat a member of the clan stands intensely watching and holding an outstretched blanket like an unmanned cape, ready to smother any flame that might catch hold. They are all encircled by a rope that is taped to the ground. At that line stands the audience who shall not cross it for fear of fire.

“Amazing,” says Shelly George, booking agent for fire art performing group Controlled Burn. “There is a sound that the fire makes as it is swinging by my head: Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. And it just gives you that warm fuzzy feeling. I never get tired of hearing it. As soon as I light up, there is a big smile on my face.”

Putting smiles on faces is the art of fire play: from swinging fire around to lighting massive gas-powered flame throwers that suck the life out of the air and can heat faces a half block away. Last month, Controlled Burn lit up for a fundraiser right across the street from the downtown Reno Fire Station. The firefighters stayed inside while fire was played right outside their door.

The only alarm being set off by Controlled Burn seems to be the alarm on audiences’ faces. They have performed for thousands, from venues like Aces Ballpark to a collaboration with the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra; they’ve performed in Truckee, San Francisco, Nevada City, David Walley’s Resort, Northstar, Squaw Valley Ski Resort, and the mother of all performances is Compression where thousands come to watch the display annually in Reno’s City Plaza. Flame effects trainers from Reno travel to New York, Detroit, New Orleans, Oahu and Toronto to teach others how to fearlessly play with fire. Las Vegas is building a permanent fire stage now and the new owners of the Morris Hotel in downtown Reno plan to. Reno is clearly a beating heart helping to fan the flames of a world-wide fire renaissance. The Reno Fire Department reports that it issues 25 to 30 fire performance permits each year. Their right to perform is even chiseled in state law.

But there is one cold spot on the Nevada map for fire performances, one place whose very name implies fire: The city of Sparks.

Sparks but no heat

“Where there is Sparks, there is no fire,” George giggles. “So close to hell, you can see Sparks,” and “Sparks should change their name to Sprinkles because when they see fire, they run.”

Those are the jokes that have developed about the city of Sparks among the members of Controlled Burn since they have been trying to hold performances there over the past six years.

“I have not heard that there is any friction,” said Sparks Fire Marshal Robert King.

“I am surprised that he [King] would even say he isn’t aware of any friction,” George said. She recalls applying for a permit to perform at Street Vibrations. “It was probably the most rigorous inspection we have ever had before a show. We were grilled by Sparks Fire.”

She says the performance started late as a result of the unexpected complexity of the inspection.

George isn’t alone in her assessment of Sparks. “[King] just made life so miserable that most people just get discouraged from doing performances there,” said Jenny Herz, former booking agent for Controlled Burn.

“I am not going to talk about my personal views,” King said. “That would be inappropriate. I will talk about my professional views, and it is that I want people in the community to be safe.”

Being safe in Sparks, according to Controlled Burn, has not only meant intense inspections, but higher cost and even the flat-out denial of a permit requested by a highly qualified state official.

In terms of cost, Reno Fire charges $83 for a fire effects permit and that includes the inspection. In Sparks, “We charge $70 an hour,” King says. “It usually costs a lot more than that because they like to hold events on the weekends, and I have to call in someone special and that costs extra.”

George called Sparks’ costs, “unfeasibly expensive,” and the result is they haven’t performed there in two years.

“When clients call, I ask, ’What is your address? Where you want to perform?” George says. “If they say, ’Sparks,’ I tell them, ’If you are willing to do the show in Reno, we will cut our price just so we wouldn’t have to do Sparks.”

George is positive they have been denied permits by Sparks in the past, but she says Controlled Burns’ computer crashed and along with it all of their records of when permits have been issued and denied. Sparks doesn’t have records of denials either.

“No, we don’t keep that kind of information,” King said, adding “that [denial of permits] is not anyone’s purview.” However, he said he might be able to find records of issued permits: “If they applied for one and were issued a permit it would take some research to get it.”

Photo By Ky Plaskon

King asked for the name of the group that applied and the date of the applicant.

In November 2010, Eric Smith applied to conduct a flame effects course in Sparks. Although his job title is State of Nevada Liquid Petroleum Gas Board Chief Inspector, he was not applying as a state official. In the course, he has taught how to safely build sculptures with flame in multiple states and even other countries.

“I went to [King’s] office, explained the class and my qualifications,” Smith wrote in an email to the RN&R. Smith also listed his qualifications: 12 certifications over 24 years in the LP-Gas industry, including being an adjunct instructor for the state of Nevada fire marshal.

“He said, ’OK.’ I paid my permit fee and left. A couple of days later, he sent me an email stating he changed his mind and was rescinding my permit and would refund my fees.”

Multiple calls and voicemails to King with requests for the details of that denial were not returned.

The reasoning for issuing a permit and then denying it even escaped some of King’s own staff at the time.

“I can’t tell you that I agreed with it,” said Michelle Peltier who was the initial Sparks fire inspector Smith contacted to start the permit process. “I do not know why it was denied,” she said.

However, she did send a document that provides some clues into the restrictions in Sparks. The “Fire Performance Inspection Checklist” has 16-points that Sparks Fire uses to evaluate performers. It requires a 25-foot perimeter from any building, person or bush. That is more than twice as wide as Controlled Burn uses in Reno. It would require 50 feet, or the length of at least five cars of empty space around a performer. It also says performers must get an open burn permit, which is only available four months out of the year. Finally, it states, “Home-made devices using pressurized flammable gas shall not be used.”

The problems with Sparks began in 2008 when Jenny Hertz, former booking agent for Controlled Burn, said Controlled Burn did a demonstration for Sparks Fire. “They were so reluctant to work with us,” she said. “We just wanted to show them that we can do this safely. We also had pressurized propane effects that scared the daylights out of them.”

Peltier said Sparks Fire and Controlled Burn had agreed to certain effects, and Controlled Burn brought unapproved ones. “Controlled Burn has flame throwers that are basically glorified squirt guns that have kerosene in them, and they light them on fire,” Peltier said. “They pulled out a lasso that they had on fire and whipped it over the heads of the crowd.”

“We never, ever had, under any circumstances, had kerosene,” George said. As for a squirt gun filled with any kind of fuel: “No.”

She added that they never go anywhere near the audience, and there is a 10-foot perimeter.

Put aside those conflicting eyewitness accounts. They both agree that age limits of performers was a serious issue.“[Controlled Burn] kept wanting people under 21 to perform, and we couldn’t allow that,” Peltier said. “Then they wanted people under 18 to perform.”

The performance age led to an intense legislative debate in 2010. When the smoke cleared, on June 2, 2011, surrounded by at least 50 flame effects artists, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed AB 304 into law. It lowered the age limit from the International Fire Code recommended age of 21 to a Nevada-sanctioned age of 18.

“I am very proud, and this is why I love this state so much,” Sandoval said after signing the law. “I think you are phenomenal artists.”

But the age debate left some parents in Controlled Burn with personal scars. George’s daughter was only 15 at the time the age limits were legally imposed, and her child had already been performing with fire for audiences for years.

“When it was gone, I lost my kid,” George said. She had been using fire performance on stage as an incentive for good grades and behavior. “You can not perform unless you have an ’A’ or ’B’ average,” George recalled as the rules for her daughter. “When they took fire away, it traumatized her. Her grades dropped, went to D’s and F’s. She was an AP student.”

Inscribing fire arts into state law also had underground flame artists breathing fire. “Morons” and “idiots,” are some of the terms used in comments posted to the video of Sandoval signing the bill. Peltier still questions if Controlled Burn is following the rules.

“I know they have underage kids performing,” Peltier said of their performances in Reno. “[The Reno Fire Department is] so understaffed it is difficult for them to check on the things they need to check on.”

Photo By Allison Young

Peltier thinks Reno is about to go in Sparks’ more restrictive direction on fire performances.

“The city of Reno does not have the same consistent policies that Sparks has been able to develop,” she said. “We may see that change in the future. The city of Reno has had some turnover in their fire marshals.”

Reno gets close to the fire

Just three days into the new job, and Reno Fire Marshal Jeff Donahue was eager to answer questions and explain his experience with fire performances.

“In my 32 years in the business, I have seen it become more and more restrictive, nationally and internationally,” Donahue said, adding that at the same time, “Everyone is out there thinking of something that is more wow factor.”

He said some things won’t fly, of course, like, “’Well, I am only going to blow me up.’ That is not happening.” But he recognizes that in most cases the performance benefits business, and his primary concern is the safety. The balancing act is not easy. He recalls while working in Oregon, there was an air show that wanted to simulate a bombing run with explosions along the ground for an audience. It was something completely new.

“That is the idea, not to just say ’no.’” Donahue said. “We took a potential problem that was going to be an economic problem and without it [the performance], it could have led to diminished attendance at the event. The operator showed us through his certifications that he was capable of doing this type of activity.”

Not only that, Donahue put together a committee to develop guidelines so that air shows could blow things up.

“We all went home to bed and knew that no one was going to get hurt and a grassland or wildland fire would not start.”

Here in Nevada, he says, he has even more resources at his disposal for safety from Las Vegas to Hollywood.

“I can tell you that here in Nevada, because of the frequency of events, most of the fire prevention people are very highly trained. There are several companies based in Nevada to train fire effects operators.”

Fifteen-year Reno fire captain and inspector Willie Seirer is one of the experts. Compared to Sparks 16-point checklist, he studies one particular manual when evaluating fire performances: National Fire Protection Association Guidelines, Standard 160. “Use of flame effects before an audience,” Seirer said. “It’s 24 pages long and covers everything from monster trucks to flaming dragons. We found that they [Controlled Burn] were always following the codes.”

Even so, Seirer said, “It is not uncommon for us to look at something in the demonstration mode and say, ’Nope, you are not doing that,’ or ’Here are the changes we need.’ It has been very easy to work with Controlled Burn.”

Seirer says that with the general public’s increased interest in fire performances, the fear is waning.

“Early on in my career, there was a level of distrust because it is a very unusual type of recreation,” Seirer said, but he has also had a lot of exposure to it. “I had seen this type of event when I was in Hawaii. I was not totally taken aback by it. Other inspectors were puzzled by it.”

For years now in the regional puzzle of fire performances, Sparks is missing.

“With a name like ’Sparks,’ it would behoove them to have fire,” George said. “I think it would be a good tourism hit if they did have fire dancing.”

King said of the question of whether Sparks could capitalize on the Sparks name with fire art, “That’s irrelevant. Our motto is ’It’s happening here.’” He does not consider the possible economic benefits of events: “That is not my job. My job is to make sure that everyone is safe.” He later backtracked. “I encourage anybody who wants to do an event to come down and apply. That is why ’it is happening here.’”

Throwing gasoline on the flames is the internet. Indeed, an online search reveals private performances of flaming sword accidents, a guy lighting his own face on fire, people letting go of their fire effect mid-spin and flinging fire into housing developments, and spectators engulfed in flames. In one instance, a GoPro camera on someone’s head is overwhelmed by fire, and the video continues with blood curdling screams for some time before it ends. The posts are few and far between, but alarming to many—especially fire officials.

“If you look them up on YouTube. You will find mishaps, and you don’t recover from it,” Peltier said.

At least one insurance company isn’t afraid of recovering from a fire performance-related accident. Controlled Burn is insured up to $2 million by United States Fire Insurance Company according to Mark Ashworth, the agent representing the group: “Controlled Burn is claims free. Controlled Burn has never had an incident.”

George is eager to make a distinction between Controlled Burn and the disasters seen on YouTube: “I can’t speak for other groups. There are rogue groups. In 14 years, we have never had an incident. We have done nothing to cause the fear.”