Telluride Fire Festival Brings the Heat

Performer Dominic Del Signore on Cyr Wheel.
Scott London
Performer Dominic Del Signore on Cyr Wheel.
The Telluride Fire Festival may not be officially linked to Burning Man, but it certainly strives to capture the spirit of that infamous, free-spirited ten-day event.

Erin Ries and her partner in Rocky Mountain Arts, Chris Myers, were inspired to create the Telluride festival after going to Burning Man, which they've attended together every year since 2010. "We had one of the boardmembers of Burning Man encourage us," Ries recalls. "Burning Man attracts 70,000 people, but a very small number actually sees all the art that's there. ... We wanted to bring the Burning Man ethos, which we really value, and also the sculptures and the fire art to our community."

With an annual attendance that numbers in the hundreds, the Telluride Fire Festival offers "a teeny-tiny taste" of Burning Man, she says.

The nonprofit Rocky Mountain Arts replaced the desert with mountains at its first event in 2015. The 2021 version will run from Friday, December 3, through Sunday, December 5, in various locations around Telluride, and Ries has high hopes that it will be bigger and better than the 2020 festival, which was hit hard by the pandemic. "It was tough," Ries recalls. "We canceled the indoor Palm Theater event two weeks out, and we went into level red the week of the festival, so the last night's event was shut down the day of the event."

It was still a success, however, and there were no reported COVID cases to come out of the festival. "We had fabulous fire art and a big sculpture burn, and we had flow arts classes outside with people in masks," she adds.
click to enlarge Wood sculptures burning in 2020. - SUCHITRA BAKER
Wood sculptures burning in 2020.
Suchitra Baker

Things haven't been easy this year, either. When the festival's original venue canceled just two weeks ago, Ries and her team had to scramble to make the festival come together. "The commissioners, the county clerk, they basically dropped everything to help us," she says.

The big event on Friday, December 3, is Radiant Revival, "a name which really fits what's happening now," Ries says. The circus and dance performance will be at the Michael D. Palm Theater.

But the most fiery display will start at 5 p.m. on Saturday, December 4, with a host of new fire performers, sculptures and a working art car with a flaming roof. "Because of the pandemic and wanting to create a different experience, we combined three events into one on Saturday night," Ries explains. "That event is called Resurrection, and that name also has a lot of meaning in this time."

Resurrection will have about nine fire performers. Normally there would be more, but "we've been limiting numbers because of the pandemic," Ries says. Even so, it will have the "unique vibe of a block party," she notes. "Think about the end of Box Canyon, surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks. It will be absolutely beautiful." A free shuttle will take attendees to the event from the Telluride courthouse.

The festival finds its artists mostly through word of mouth and regional Burning Man events, Ries says.  Artists coming from Denver include the collective Gammaspace, which is bringing a 23-foot-wide, 15-foot-tall propane sculpture. Keith D'Angelo, another Denver artist, will showcase interactive propane art, "which people will be able to crank and make it turn and flame at the same time," she says. "Using laymen's terms, a propane sculpture is a metal sculpture, mostly found objects, which uses a path of tubing that propane will flow through and flame out of various orifices."

Several wood sculptures will also burn during Resurrection. "There are two, over twenty-feet sculptures that are going to burn on Saturday night," Ries adds. "We will provide people with markers to write something on it before it burns." Keeping sustainability in mind, the sculptures "are made of clean wood; we recycle and reuse everything we can, we find stuff in dumpsters and clean wood so that it doesn't go into landfill," she explains.

Another sculpture will be provided by the True North Youth Program, created by teens over a two-day period. "It's kind of unique — it's got a surfboard, a sun with rays and trees," Ries says. She thinks people will also be impressed by "Fiery Fluffy," a sculpture made by a combination of teens and adults. "It's a really fun, silly animal-like character," she says of the figure with flaming whiskers. "It also blows flames out of its butt."

The art car was built from a 1989 Ford Transporter van by artists Jamie Vaida and Alvin Sessions. "It just looks like a miner's shack; you can barely see the wheels," Ries notes. "The roof will be on fire...and it has a chimney that poofs fire, so children can climb on the shack and push the button to make it poof."

Saturday will also feature free one-hour workshops on stilt-walking, juggling and clowning at Telluride's Wilkinson Public Library from 1 to 3 p.m. More workshops will happen on Sunday.

Over the years, community members have gotten hooked on the festival. "I want people to take away that anybody can participate and anyone can create," Ries says. "We had one student at the welding workshop who has now made his lifelong career welding. So I want people to realize that they, too, can change their trajectory and be or do something else in life, and appreciate that there are [more] opportunities in life than maybe the ones they're pursuing. ... Everyone is welcome, anybody and everybody."

Telluride Fire Festival, Friday, December 3, through Sunday, December 5. For venues and workshop schedules, as well as lodging and dining suggestions, go to the website, where you can also get tickets to Radiant Revival ($30 to $200) and Resurrection ($30). Workshops are free.