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Burning Man Pyrotechnics

Pyrotechnics: the art, craft and science of fireworks. Want to see it done incredibly? Go to Burning Man where people LOVE to blow up things.

So first, some background on fireworks. This is where your memory of high school chemistry comes in handy. Be it a sparkler or a fireworks display over a stadium the sound and light and color is a complex brew of oxidizers, propellants, fuel, binders and coloring agents all combined to make you go Wow! Thank the ancient Chinese civilizations that first introduced fireworks for special occasions about 600A.D.

At Burning Man you just don’t go out and decide to do your own thing with fireworks. It’s why there is a Fire Arts Safety Team and people licensed with fuel management certifications. “Wanna be” pyromaniacs can take fire effects classes to become licensed pyrotechnic operators off playa. Any fire performance in the Black Rock Desert in undertaken with absolute seriousness and members of the team trust each other with their lives.

I had the pleasure of interviewing In-Sin-Erator, the playa name of a very busy woman in charge of burning the Man instillation. Licensed since she was 21 and married to a fellow pyrotechnic professional she has 20+ years experience making viewers on the ground scream with appreciation.

In-Sin-Erator explained there are lots of kinds of fireworks shows. Some, in theaters and casinos, are done in close proximity to people and some are commercial, think Disneyland or a baseball stadium. Some pyrotechnicians work in Hollywood doing special effects and some love doing huge sky displays. I asked if there was a difference between the person who dreams up what an aerial display will look like and the mechanically inclined person who lights the fuses in sequence. She said with time and experience you start with simple tasks and work up to designing shows. 

An aspect of fireworks I loved was the flower names of the individual units and their visual appearance. There were Chrysanthemum, Dahlias, Falling Leaves, Palm Trees, Dahlias and many more. In-Sin-Erator equates working with them to music. She can visualize a box of chemicals sitting on the ground as a note in a melody. Add enough notes like that together and you have a visual song exploding in the sky 200’ over your head.

Called Pyro Pirates a crew of 20 people are needed to do the Burn, are serious with their work, and save shenanigans for after the Man burns. There could be 70,000 Burners around the perimeter of the Burn but there is a designated cleared exit route for their vehicles as soon as the Man burns and they escape to go back to their camp and crash. This year the Man burned completely in what seemed like one minute but one year it took 45 minutes for the Man to fall.

For fireworks lovers In-Sin-Erator suggests Louisville Kentucky and their “Thunder Over Louisville” for a great show, In a moment of “playa magic” we discovered we’d both seen the year 2000 Fourth of July fireworks over New York Harbor, which was an exceptional show.

Weather is different every year at the Burn and some years winds spin off mini cyclones that are called fire tornados or fireclones which can be scary. Some years there are 100 art instillations that burn on the playa, as the designers wish, but only under the supervision of the Fire Arts Safety Team. 

And guess what? They recycle. Everything that can be reused is saved. The electronic control cables that set off the charges have connections that pop loose and can be retrieved. The site where the Man burns is protected so there will be no burn scar or debris left on the playa. It’s a “Leave No Trace” event.

Thanking In-Sin-Erator for sharing information on a busy day I went to meet another fireworks lover, Kevin LeVizu, who has a unique Burner job. He’s a documentarian, the photographer of the Fire Conclave fire performance groups. There are 1,200 fire dancers performing around the Man before the Burn and he is allowed special viewing access to visually record the Burn. He does this with love and enthusiasm since he can’t make one cent selling Burning Man photographs. There is no commercialization of Burning Man images. That does not stop him from taking 12,000 during the Burn week and keeping perhaps 200 breathtaking photos when it’s all over and done with.

Kevin explained how he could photograph someone holding a ball of fire in the palm of his or her hand, or a person breathing fire. He can make a fire ball on a string being spun leave a halo image with a strobe light. He uses his professional skills to snap photos and give them free to fire dance groups for their web pages to inspire others. He works hard at his profession all year long to have a week to come out to the playa and photograph the magic of flame at Burning Man.

When not out interviewing pyromaniacs I was busy at Mobility Camp. We’re the folks who get people out to see the art on the playa when they can’t do it walking or biking. With a tractor & trailer holding 20 we get campers out to see art and the burns. Doing this, at the perimeter fence at dawn, our camp was serving hot coffee and croissants to folks who had been up all night when who rides up but the one other person from Comptche who was at the Burn. That’s magic in the midst of 70,000 people.

As with every year there are activities going on day and night. I discovered Rootpile, a Bluegrass camp from Appalachia that served moonshine and Southern food between music sets. The pizza camp gifted Mobility Camp vegan pizza one afternoon and the Lovin’ Oven camp brought us fresh bread. 

As with any Burn weird things abounded, and I avoided them. The Erotic Kinky Partner Dance at the Orgy Dome progressed without me. I passed on the Naughty Naked Portrait Camp and the Slut Celebration and instead stopped at Camp Mom & Dad where they were passing out cookies and milk. The Disney Trivia and Sing-Along attracted folks, as did Camp Blintzkreig where mushroom stuffed blintz was being shared. I saw Roller Derby in the Dust and a knitting circle. The Playa Choir sang for a non-denominational Sunday “Come to Meeting” gathering and the Black Rock Philharmonic and PlayaPops played “real” music. There was even a “Hulananny” for folks who loved Hawaiian music.

Educational talks included “Kraken is Real!” about the world’s largest squid, geology of the Black Rock Playa and one on fire blankets-how the playa is protected under art that burns, The one event I didn’t get to and would have loved to attend was the Mother’s High Tea. It was an afternoon tea party for all moms whose kids had brought them to Burning Man. My daughter Fern brought me in 2012 and I’ve been going ever since, Dusty tumultuous noisy Burning Man may not be everyone’s “cup of tea” but it’s claimed a spot in my heart and mind and I’ll be there again next year.

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