Visual Arts

Burning Man flame effects specialist DaveX on how to play with fire -- safely

As members of Burning Man's Fire Arts Safety Team, DaveX and Eric Smith are combined experts in the fields of pyrotechics and flame effects. Together, Smith, chief inspector for the state of Nevada LP-Gas Board, and DaveX, licensed California pyrotechnic operator, saw a need for safety education in the design and execution of fire art.

This weekend, Smith and DaveX will teach a two-day workshop on these topics at The Fusion Factory, along with a Saturday evening meet-and-greet at Trace Gallery. In advance of these gatherings, DaveX spoke with Westword about his fourteen years overseeing fire arts at Burning Man and his certification in the world of flame effects.

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Westword: What does it mean to be a flame effects specialist?

DaveX: Well, I've been working for years within the pyrotechnics industry; I'm a licensed California pyrotechnic operator. I've been working for the last fourteen years managing all the fire projects that come in through Burning Man, managing a team called the Fire Arts Safety Team at Burning Man. We review all the flame effects that go on and pyrotechnic and structure burns and give artists feedback.

Having done both the pyrotechnic role and the flame effects review, I realized there was a need for education in that field; there's really no particular source on the Internet for information about this kind of stuff. My partner and I, Eric Smith -- his name is Propaniac at Burning Man, he's the chief inspector for the state of Nevada LP-Gas Board -- realized that together, we could present an educational course to inform people on how to construct and operate flame effects in a way that met industry standards. There are various standards for different aspects of this -- but from the pyrotechnic industry and from the LP-Gas industry that could be combined into a course, one that could be taught to artists that are looking to incorporate flame effects into their art.

I'm doing this class outside of Burning Man -- this is not a class that's put on by Burning Man, but any means. It's just using my experience that I've gathered over the years as a manager in the field.

How did you get into flame effects and get certified and trained in the capacity that you are?

There are many lines that converged into this: like I said, I worked for fourteen years at Burning Man doing this kind of stuff. And in that role, people would apply with all kinds of projects, and I had the opportunity to review them. There are hundreds of fire art projects that come into Burning Man every year. Each person has a little specialty -- maybe they understand fireworks or maybe they have a specialty in some sort of fire effect. Maybe they've burned some structure at Burning Man before.

In my position, I'm sort of at the center of the wagon wheel, where they all would have to make applications to me, draw up diagrams and schematics and explain to me how all of these things work. Through that, I would gain understanding of how all the different systems -- whether it was open fire and burning structures or flame effects or pyrotechnics -- works.

Then, about ten years ago, I started working with a company called Pyro Spectaculars here in the Bay Area, and we do a lot of fireworks displays for the (Oakland) A's and the Giants baseball teams. I just helped out on a fireworks show for the big Golden Gate Bridge 75th Anniversary. So in working with them, they trained me as well in the use of pyrotechnics.

I also then discovered Eric Smith -- in using all these flame effects at Burning Man, we came to a point where I realized that we needed to meet industry standards as far as a the LP-Gas effects stuff was concerned. So I went and took a course from Eric Smith at the Board's certified employee training program. Then I realized that he actually kind of was one of us, in a way. I invited him to come to Burning Man and experience what was going on there, and it really sparked his imagination.

If you can imagine, someone who's chief inspector for the LP-Gas Board for the state of Nevada -- in regular life, if you go into a bar and say "I'm the chief inspector for the LP-Gas Board for the state of Nevada" that means almost nothing. But if you go to an event like Burning Man, and you say that, you're almost like a god among men; people come around you and want to know more. He really found his own place within that community to really grow and expand. Together, we realized we were a great team. What sorts of things will you and Eric be covering at this weekend's workshop?

First of all, there are some standards that cover this kind of work and the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) has standards governing the use of flame effects before a live audience. Then we'll cover the LP-Gas codes numbers 54 and 58. We basically go through these standards and fire codes -- this is the first part of the class. Then I go through an overview of different types of flame effects and various safety standards, like various types of fire extinguishers, how to create a written safety plan for using your effects, how to apply for permits through your authority having jurisdiction. Basically, construction standards, permitting and safety plans.

Then, the second part of it, we go through the whole creative process, where we throw a bunch of metal -- I've asked the students to bring scrap metal -- on the floor and we look at all the scrap. We make a sketch of some kind of project or idea, usually related to the area that we're doing it, or some kind of local connection.

Then we start in on the creative process with these building materials. Not only are we teaching how to make the flame effect, but usually, we'll break it into several groups: electrical, plumbing, fabrication and different aspects of the building. There's a group dynamic going on too -- usually one group will get ahead of the other group and make decisions that will then effect the other groups, either adversely, or in some way. When we break apart at lunch, I ask those groups to report back -- and we'll realize that there are problems. I teach them how to work together as a group and how to work together on a large, collective art project. They have to learn to not get ahead of each other and keep checking back.

In the beginning of the class, I let the mistakes happen. I can say hey, you guys in the electrical group have gotten way ahead and made decisions that aren't going to work with the way the fabrication group made it. What could you have done to correct this? A common mistake is that they'll make the electrical wires the wrong length -- then when they get to the real thing that they've built, they'll realize that the wires are too short or two long. But when they realize the mistakes that they've made, they can check in with each other every few minutes.

This Saturday, May 4, and Sunday, May 5 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., DaveX and Eric Smith will be teaching "Flame Effects for the Artist," at The Fusion Factory. The course is $150 for both days and space is extremely limited; email [email protected] to inquire about a reservation.

On Saturday evening at 6 p.m., The Fusion Factory will be hosting "Mingling with Fire" at Trace Gallery, a meet-and-greet with the experts. This social gathering is free and open to the public, with guests asked to bring a bottle of wine, a dish to share or a monetary donation for the gallery space. For more information, visit the event's Facebook page.

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Bree Davies is a multimedia journalist, artist advocate and community organizer born and raised in Denver. Rooted in the world of Do-It-Yourself arts and music, Davies co-founded Titwrench experimental music festival, is host of the local music and comedy show Sounds on 29th on CPT12 Colorado Public Television and is creator and host of the civic and social issue-focused podcast, Hello? Denver? Are You Still There? Her work is centered on a passionate advocacy for all ages, accessible, inclusive, non-commercial and autonomous DIY art spaces and music venues in Denver.
Contact: Bree Davies