Spontaneous combustion

Controlled Burn prepares to light up the desert playa at Burning Man

Jim Fry spins a burning staff. Don’t get too close.

Jim Fry spins a burning staff. Don’t get too close.

Photo By David Robert

Dave King likes to play with fire.

He takes a wooden staff and pours a mixture of boric acid and 90 percent isopropyl alcohol onto the torch wicks at both ends. He lights the staff and—poof!—an eerie green flame glows from his fire stick. King twirls it around, producing a buzzing, whooshing sound as the green flames light up the night. He spins the staff faster and faster until the flames blur, creating an optical illusion of a ring of fire.

King is a founding member of Controlled Burn, a local group of fire performers who will be demonstrating their skills—along with several hundred other fire performers from around the world—at this year’s Burning Man, which begins Aug. 31 in the Black Rock Desert. They have been practicing Tuesday and Thursday evenings at Reno’s Pickett Park for the past year, attracting curious onlookers to their incendiary exhibition.

On a recent Thursday evening, the members of Controlled Burn set up their equipment on an empty, sandy volleyball court at the park while families relaxed on the grass and young men played a soccer game nearby. King, co-founder Scot Quigley, Cory Canon and several other Controlled Burn members set down milk crates filled with various fuels as well as drip pans, fire extinguishers and their fire tools—staffs and poi, which are lengths of chains with rings at the center or at one end. A drummer sits on the grass outside the court and begins to tap out a tribal beat.

King explains that fire performers and drummers go hand in hand.

“What the fire performers are doing is the illumination of the drum performances,” he says. “When you see [a fire performance], it’s really pretty and energetic, and it changes in tempo and intensity with the drums. One feeds off the other.”

King says at events like Burning Man, there will be groups of drummers roaming about the playa. When drummers decide to play, it won’t be long before fire performers are lighting up their equipment and forming a fire circle. King says these are often spur-of-the-moment events. The energy rises and falls and then dies off until it emerges again at another part of the playa.

This kind of energy attracted King and Quigley to fire performing about two years ago. Regular visitors to Burning Man, they were impressed by the fire performers and felt they could do it as well. When the first literature for Burning Man 2000 was released in January of that year, King and Quigley got serious and formed their own fire group.

They attended Burning Man organizational meetings in San Francisco and started hanging out with the San Francisco Fire Conclave, an exclusive group of fire performers who perform around the city, as well as at Burning Man.

“We drove down there for practices with the Fire Conclave about nine times last year,” King recalls. “We’d take our new tools that we made and our new toys and go down there and watch the guys that we knew from Burning Man, and as soon as we’d show up with our own tools, they were like, ‘Hey, our brothers.’ They kind of took us in, and they showed us moves.”

King says he first learned how to maneuver the staff as a kid, although he didn’t have any martial arts training. When he took up fire performing he started “spinning” on the staff, then worked up to poi, the fire instruments that originated with the Maori of New Zealand. Quigley says they had only been practicing with poi for about four weeks before performing at last year’s Burning Man and were able to keep up with some of the best poi dancers there.

King and Quigley had initially applied for a special use permit through the Reno Fire Department when Controlled Burn first began to practice in public parks, but now they must register with the Nevada State Fire Marshal. Each member of Controlled Burn has to apply annually for a certificate of registration for flame effects. The group must have all its fuels—which typically consist of “white gas” or Coleman’s fuel, lamp oil and kerosene—contained and labeled, have somebody keep a watch in case of fire and have fire extinguishers and wet towels on hand in case a fire gets out of control.

The group began spinning at Stewart Park last year, and then moved to Pickett Park, across the street from Washoe Medical Center. People started showing up and asked to participate. King says it’s a pretty open group, but there are about 15 people who spin regularly.

King says San Francisco fire performers complimented Controlled Burn, saying that the Reno performers had their own “accent,” or style.

“The Reno accent is speed,” King says. “A lot of people here are really fast.”

At a recent practice, members demonstrated that speed and control over their instruments. Cory Canon spun two staffs simultaneously, his quick movements slicing through the air as he twirled around like a whirling dervish of fire.

But despite their experience with the instruments, burns occur. Cory’s twin, Cody, singed a patch of hair near his braid when a wick got a little too close for comfort (performers often wear bandanas around their heads for protection). Several members also showed off some of the burn marks they’ve acquired since they began spinning. King and Quigley both say that the hair on their arms and legs have been burnt off before.

But the members take it all in stride.

“You get burnt,” Cory says. “You’ll probably see, at least 50 times, somebody on fire. But we’ve gotten to the point to where we know how the fuel burns, how cotton burns, how hair burns, that we can tell when someone is actually in danger and when someone can just tap the leg and it will go out.”

The members will soon indulge their “pyromania” when they leave for Burning Man’s temporary Black Rock City about a week before the event’s start. This year’s event will be a special one for the group, since Controlled Burn has been invited to perform in a “sentinel,” or main performance area, located near the actual Burning Man. There will be three other sentinels featuring fire dancers from Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco, King says. The Controlled Burn members will be sharing their sentinel with dancers from New York City.

This year has been particularly memorable for King and Quigley, since they helped build this year’s Burning Man. They picked up the hardware at a local Home Depot and transported it to the Black Rock Desert, where they helped assemble parts of the wooden Man, burned annually on Labor Day weekend.

“This year, since we helped build part of the Man, we get to be on the rope and help raise the Man’s hands,” Quigley says. “That’s a big honor. We got to sign [his] heart. … My name is right in the center of the heart, which is really cool.”

Each member has his or her own reason for playing with fire. Quigley says he does it because it’s fun and good exercise. Plus, he says he enjoys the camaraderie among fire performers and learning how to do new moves.

“You meet the nicest people on fire, you know?" he says.