Month: June 2007

Thoughts on safety for fire performers

Although I’d been thinking about if for a while, Burning Flipside got me thinking more about safety in firedancing. Not so much in the act of firedancing itself, but all the stuff that surrounds it: equipment design, fuel-depot setup, spotters, etc. It also got me thinking more about the community aspects of burner events like Burning Flipside, and indeed, there’s some overlap between these two issues.


I’ve said before that a bad spotter is worse than no spotter, and I say that having seen a bad spotter completely lose his shit at the moment a friend needed help. At Flipside this year, I was the cat-herder in charge of the fire procession before the effigy burn, and I kind of dropped the ball on spotters. I didn’t round up as many as I felt should be on hand, and not all the ones I did round up were known to me at all—meaning some of them might lose their shit when someone needs help. I also was aware that, while it resulted in only inconvenience, not injury, there were some instances at Flipside where the firedancer and spotter were not on the same page about who should be doing what.

To rectify that, I decided to organize a spotter training session. The idea is to solve two problems: to increase the pool of spotters, and to increase the skill level of those spotters. Most folks involved in firedancing are not trained as spotters: someone hands them a damp towel and says “will you be my towel person?” If you’re a fire performer yourself, you’ve got an advantage in that you’ve got a better idea of what to look out for, and should be less likely to freak out about running towards a fire, but there can still be gaps in your knowledge. And in some situations, the people serving as spotters are the people who aren’t (or aren’t yet) firedancers—they are the firedancer’s friend, S.O., or whatever.

I started a discussion on Tribe about this, and based on that discussion came up with a training notes document.

This document is an attempt to codify the consensus approach to good practices for spotters, and simply to provide a common point of reference. Even if some of the points are no better than alternatives, spotters and performers sharing the same set of expectations will cut down on problems. Spotters and performers don’t always communicate before a light-up, so a common point of reference is important.

Using that document as a starting point, we held our training session, the first one we’ve had in Austin as far as I know. We had four experienced spinners (myself included) and eight newbies. The flow went something like this: hand out a copy of the notes to everyone, quickly review the contents of it and discuss why certain points are important. Demonstrate (sans fire) most of the “hairy situations.” Then all the newbies paired off and drilled on these situations. After about 20 minutes, we had live-fire drills. Before we did that, I produced a very small torch I with no exposed metal, and used this to stroke down everyone’s arm with flame (after doing my own). My point in doing so was to break down the (perfectly reasonable) wall that most people have that causes them to avoid contact with fire, to demystify the fire, and to show that while it is uncomfortable, it isn’t terribly painful. One participant flinched away reflexively, even after several attempts, and I think in her case this was a particularly useful exercise in that it brought this mental block to the surface.

Then we moved on with the drills. I put on some protective gear I had improvised, and with a set of poi built with easy-to-drop handles and small wicks, got into various awkward positions with fire near my skin. Each person ran in on cue and put them out. Everyone took two tries at each situation, and after we had gone through a couple of situations, Scott took over with much larger wicks. We also drilled on routine wick-extinguishing. It would have been nice to drill on fire-extinguisher usage, but impractical and expensive, since we didn’t have a CO2 extinguisher. But all in all, I’m pleased with how things went. It’s also become clear to me that there are a number of people out there who may not be interested in being fire performers, but are interested in being spotters. That’s pretty cool.

Some of the stuff in the notes might be the source of some disagreement. One point, which I don’t dwell on but which I do consider important, is the chain of command, which goes performer: spotter normally, but spotter: performer in emergencies. A lot of other stuff in the notes springs from this, and it would be the single most important common point of reference for spotters and performers to share. And for that matter, there are some edge cases where the rule doesn’t hold, as when the spotter is very experienced and the performer is very inexperienced.

Fuel depots

I think this year was the first year we had a fuel depot for Circle of Fire that was marked, lit, signed, and all that good stuff. We could still do better. Soaking tanks with self-closing lids would be a safety improvement and would also keep rain out (we wound up wasting a fair amount of fuel that got rainwater mixed in). While there’s no product that fits this description exactly, there are “oily waste cans” that would be perfect for the job (though spendy). Wiring them down to a large platform to avoid tip-over would be safer still.


I’ve been making firedancing equipment for longer than I’ve been a firedancer myself, and over that time, I’ve learned a lot about what is safe and what isn’t, likewise what is effective and what isn’t. This is to be expected. Firedancing has been popular for less than a decade, and there’s a lot that nobody would know. When I started out, I made equipment that I assumed was safe and useful because I didn’t know any better. Gradually, I’ve learned what doesn’t work, although this has been mostly an empirical process. To some extent, I can look at certain materials and take a pretty good guess as to whether they can be assembled into a safe piece of equipment, but there are always new and clever ways to abuse a piece of equipment. There’s been some discussion among fire-tool makers of standards for fire-tool safety, and at this point, we haven’t even decided what the parameters for “safe” are, much less the values. As one person pointed out, different people will have different ideas of what is “safe enough”—even among safety-conscious people. And the fire community is notorious for it’s “safety third” attitude.

Burning Flipside 2007 report

I’ve been putting off writing about Flipside because it’s been hard for me to produce a coherent narrative based on my experience. This is my fourth Flipside (see my writeups on 2003, 2005, and 2006). I took a handful of photos, and while I regret not having more, I don’t regret not carrying my camera around more. I feel that the camera gets in the way of being directly engaged with one’s environment, and Flipside is all about direct engagement.

One thing that I came to realize well before this Flipside is that everyone who goes there creates their own experience. At the greeter’s station on the way in, a greeter will ask you “who is responsible for your experience at Flipside?” The correct answer is obvious, and the intent here is more limited in scope than what I’m talking about. The greeter’s point is basically that if you don’t like what’s happening to you at Flipside, you’re responsible for making your situation right, and if you get into a bad situation, you need to take responsibility for it. Which is an important point, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Some people see Flipside as nothing more a Dionysian weekend of drugs, sex, food, and debauchery. And while that Dionysian experience is a component for almost everyone there, for most folks it’s not the only one, or even the most important. For most people, it is to some extent about creating and experiencing art, and about creating a community. I have a friend who is a real party animal, but is also extremely generous with her time and energy, and I’m trying to convince her to go to Flipside, partly because I am curious which side of her it will bring out.

This year I was more involved than before in the community-creating aspect. In a sense, I’ve been having my Flipside experience for a few months. I went to Church Night, which is held twice a week and is a volunteer effort to build the effigy. I was lead for the Circle of Fire theme camp. I attended Town Hall meetings (where things get planned and discussed) and burn-night safety meetings. For the third year, I was the cat-herder in charge of the fire procession.

This level of involvement meant that Flipside was a lot more work for me than it had been in the past, but it also meant that I was coming into contact with a lot of other people who dedicate an astonishing amount of time and effort to the community-building aspects of Flipside–people who spend many, many hours before the event getting ready for their part in it, and many hours at the event in some kind of public-service capacity. These people are all volunteers–this is the Flipside experience they have chosen to have. Many of these people are also hard-rocking party monsters, and I wonder where they get the energy.

Anyhow, like I said, no coherent narrative. At least not yet.


I was a theme-camp lead, and I wanted to get out there early. We were bringing out a lot more infrastructure than Circle of Fire ever had before, and I had borrowed Greg’s 1971 green GMC half-ton pickup (with AM radio!) to get it all out there. It barely fit, and took a hell of a lot of doing just to get it packed. I wanted to get out there right when the gates opened, but we were about two hours behind schedule. Finally, Gwen and I got in the cab (crammed in with all the stuff that wouldn’t fit in the bed, thinking only at the last minute to grab sweaters just in case it got cool) and turned the key. The starter ground away, but the engine would not catch. Tried again. Same result. Again. Same.

Turn truck off, breathe deeply. I do not want to unload this truck, rent another one, and load that. Try again. Success! Phew.

We hit the road, driving very carefully. I realized that maneuvers that would be easy in my car would tip this truck right over. Mention of that made Gwen pale, riding as she was sans seat belt in the middle. Made it out to Flat Creek in a reasonable amount of time. June, dressed as a cheerleader, flagged us down at the greeter’s station. I got out, reached into one of our ice chests, and fished out a beer for her.

On the drive out, Gwen and I had discussed what order we should attack everything in: we had the shade structures to erect, and the fire-circle backdrop to install. Both would be time-consuming. I said we should get the shade structures up first. It wasn’t clear how many people would be on hand to help when we got there (as it turned out, Travis and Spot were there before us, and they helped out), and the shade structures were our highest priority. Good thing: shortly after we got them up, it started raining. Hard. All the stuff we had just dumped off the back of the pickup we moved under the canopies. We wound up erecting our tent under the canopies, and then moving it out to our spot once the rain let up. Kevin from Kansas showed up. We got started pounding in the T-posts for the fire-circle backdrop. Amy and her entourage showed up. We got our kitchen and trash system set up. Realized we had forgotten a few things, so I called Kat (due to show up the next day) to request she bring those items. I was somewhat amazed that my phone worked at all out there (as it was, it was on roaming). The Brothers of the Flame showed up with their wives, girlfriends, etc. It rained some more, a lot more, and at one point, strong winds threatened to tear our shade structures loose from the ground. Next year: better stakes and tie-downs. The Brothers had trouble navigating their cars through camp, and then had trouble setting up their tents because of all the rain. This was the first year we really got to hang out with the Brothers, and despite the inauspicious start it was great having them at the camp. All those rainy hours sitting in a circle around the one dry spot were much finer because of their company!


Got up, made coffee for as many people in camp as wanted it. Started a fire in an elevated firepit–at some point someone asked “what’s the fire for?” and I could only answer “uh, Circle of Fire?” Actually, it was nice to have it going just because it felt homey, and it was useful as we burned a lot of waste over the course of the weekend so that we wouldn’t need to bring it home. A guy down from New York, Jeff, took shelter under our canopies and wound up hanging out for quite a while until the rain abated. Sean showed up. (Or did he arrive Thursday? He was like the wind.)

Finished getting the fire circle set up, with a lot of help. Took our first trip down from the plateau to the ring road, where we encountered Bean in her guise as Captain Cameltoe (“nine kinds of wrong” as she put it), and learned that the Subaru completely covered in astroturf was hers. I don’t remember doing anything else in particular during the day on Friday other than seeing the rest of Flipside, re-meeting old friends and making new ones. Amy worked on painting one of the panels on the fire-circle backdrop. More rain, and threatening skies all day. That night, Shiree of Spin Camp staged some fire art: she had brought out a full trailer-load of fire bricks, which she saturated in denatured alcohol doped with salts that produce colored flames. These were arranged in a low wall running about 50′, with curlicues splitting off from it, culminating in a small tower at one end. She did fire-paintings, spraying the same doped fuel on the road, and eventually started lighting the wall. It burned slowly and was quite a sight. After that was over, I headed back up to the fire circle to try to kick-start some action there, but as it turned out, most of the spinners were doing their thing at Spin Camp. I admit to feeling a little peeved that, after the amount of work I put into it, the circle was barely getting used. Reconnected with Gwen and went wandering. Hung out in the music tent at Ish–to take advantage of their comfy loungers as much as anything else, because my feet were killing me. I had gotten a pair of Bates combat boots–these were comfortable, waterproof, and supportive. Money well spent. But I was spending so much time on my feet walking around that by the end of the day, I could barely stand.

The neighboring camp, Giza, was unbelievably loud, and I had unwisely situated our tent close to it. We didn’t sleep well. Earplugs were almost useless.


Saturday was much like Friday, except that I actually swam in the creek, which had been closed much of Friday (and part of Saturday, for that matter) due to the risk of flash flooding. The fact that we saw very little direct sunlight and that temperatures were on the cool side made the creek somewhat less inviting this year, as well. At one point we sat around discussing “what’s the most disturbing thing you’ve seen at Flipside?” My first choice was an older fellow with a multiply-pierced johnson, but on reflection, I decided it had to be the art piece “Marriage is (not) about doing the dishes,” a sculpture made of found objects arranged in a roughly anthropomorphic shape, in a wedding dress, with broken dishes and human blood on the front. A fair amount of human blood–I’d estimate about 4 ounces. I later learned a little of the back-story to this piece, which made it even more disturbing. As a friend put it, “Ellen [the artist] has some interesting issues.”

We moved our tent to place as much landscape, foliage, and stuff between it and Giza as possible.

We had a no-fire spin jam in the fire circle during the day, with experienced spinners and newcomers. That was fun.

Saturday night was the night of the glam-rock opera Arrogant Satin, being performed in the Smash Camp dome. I was reminded of this during the day when I encountered Michael 7.0 in his Burning Ridge Country Club theme-camp persona, going around and offering to buy people’s art: he was performing in the show that night, and explained that everyone involved had been rehearsing two nights a week for three months. It had an all-original score. The fact that M7 had done this while also serving as theme-camp siting lead as well as presumably holding down a day job impressed me greatly. Gwen and I showed up at the nominal starting time for the show, but the Miss Flipside Booty Pageant was still underway, so we watched that for a while. Eventually the show did start, and it was really quite good, and not just in an “A for effort” sense. Also involved were M7’s lovely wife June, Kristin, and probably some other people I should be able to name. I didn’t let myself watch much because I felt that I needed to check in at the fire circle. Good thing: power had been diverted from the PA, so I needed to run a new line to that. The fuel depot needed some attention. And just when I was finishing with that, our gracious DJ, Juan John, showed up, so I helped him get situated.

Saturday night at the fire circle turned out great. Any peevishness I had felt before was washed away: the music was good, everything was running smoothly. One problem was that the surface wasn’t as smooth as it really should be, and one woman took a misstep and tumbled on her ass. Next year: spread wood chips. Another problem was that Giza had a ridiculously loud PA, and it was difficult at times to hear our own PA (admittedly, just about the cheapest thing I could rent, with 400 W per speaker) over it. Giza was shushed repeatedly during Flipside, with sound levels metered at 112 dB or thereabouts (110 dB is described as “front row of rock concert” loud; I think the organizers wanted PAs kept to 85 dB). Next year: consider getting a bigger PA. Other than that, though, I felt like everything was paying off and I was very happy. I guess you might say this was the Flipside experience I wanted to have.

After I was done with the fire circle for the night, I put on my neon suit, and Gwen and I made the rounds. Got a good reaction.

Went to bed and slept very well.


Sunday was the day of the effigy burn, the psychological peak of any burner event. People seem to take it a little easier during the day on Sunday because they’re holding back for the blowout that follows the burn.

On Sunday, somebody dropped by the fire circle for spinning lessons, and I was teaching him some moves when I was dragooned into taking part in the burn meeting. This was a meeting attended mostly by rangers and some of the Flipside muckety-mucks, to go over all the logistics involved in the effigy burn. On the one hand, it’s a little surprising that this stuff isn’t all worked out and written down well in advance. On the other, it’s surprising how smoothly the meeting went. Everyone seemed to know what needed to be done, and people plugged themselves into the required roles on the fly. I was there as the cat-herder in charge of the firedancers’ procession. I’ve done this before, and in some respects, I felt that I wasn’t as on top of things this year. Then again, there were more things to be on top of. We had to move the fuel depot (something new) because there was only one lane being held open, which firedancers would need to pass up and down, and this was far away from the Circle of Fire fuel depot, over very slippery, muddy ground. The fact that we were moving the fuel depot meant that I was, literally, trying to be in two places at once, because firedancers were showing up at Circle of Fire to take part, but had to move quickly to the relocated fuel depot to get ready, and people in both places had questions for me. I got a bit short-tempered with someone, which I regret. We had only seven spotters on hand–good thing nothing happened. Gwen observed how harried I must have been and took over spotter coordinating without saying anything. Other people thought the fire procession went smoothly, but I was very aware of how badly I passed along the procession guidelines to everyone, how badly I had done lining up spotters, how I had completely failed to brief the spotters, etc. I think I know how to do better next year.

The effigy burn was surprisingly low-key. The crowd did not make a lot of noise, and the effigy’s conflagration was not especially spectacular–I was surprised that the fire had burned down to almost nothing within a few hours, and was completely extinguished by the next morning. The most impressive Flipside effigy burn I’ve seen was in 2005, the rocket, which reached one crescendo of heat after another until it became almost percussive, pushing people back ten feet, then twenty.

Not long after the effigy burn came the temple burn. The temple was nowhere near as grand as one of David Best’s creations, but it was pretty, well-conceived, and solidly built. As the temple burned, Giza actually put on some music that was not only appropriate but moving. Dave down at Spin Camp lit a dozen or so of his flying lanterns, and they floated slowly northward and skyward until they were like stars. The symbolism was perfect. Everyone present was quiet. I got a little misty–it was the most memorable moment of the weekend for me.

After that came a firedancing free-for-all. The past few years this has actually surrounded the burning effigy remnant, but this year, because the path between the temporary fuel depot and effigy circle was so muddy, the depot got re-relocated to Circle of Fire, and we used the fire circle. Gwen knew that I wasn’t going to want to haul those depot barricades home, so took it upon herself to direct SCESW to toss them in the fire for me (she was right that I didn’t want to bring them home, but I planned on burning them later). Another good night of firedancing. After I exhausted myself doing that, Gwen and I took a walk around the plateau, and at Art Car Camp (which had no art cars) we encountered for the first time all weekend an eight-note flame organ, which we both took turns playing. Wonderful fun. The whole thing was very homemade, with the electronics being powered by a jury-rigged DeWalt power pack, and the pilot lights for each of the pipes shrouded in Schlitz cans.

We went to bed happy in the glow of the burn.


Mondays at Flipside are hard–psychologically, because it is hard to leave that community and re-enter consensus reality, and physically, because packing up and cleaning the camp is a lot of work. I had 24 cast-iron T-posts to pull and load up in the truck, two shade structures to break down and pack into boxes that had gotten completely sodden in the weekend’s deluges, the camp kitchen, the fire pit, the tent, the ice chests, etc. I went out to the effigy’s spot and found a metal plate that had been used on one of its arms, and packed it away. Just as crews on aircraft carriers “walk the deck” to pick up anything that might foul the landing gear of the planes, we do the same at Flipside, picking up cigarette butts, cellophane wrappers, etc. Although I had done that on the previous days, I did not do it on Monday–several other people asked “is there anything I can do to help” and I put them to work on that. I have to assume they did a good job, because I got the truck packed up by early afternoon, and Gwen and I said our goodbyes and hit the road.

Once home, Gwen and I took a few days to get back into our regular rhythms–as Gwen observed, it was a lot like jet lag.

This was the wettest Flipside yet, I am told: we had maybe four hours of direct sunlight all weekend, and several vigorous gully-washers. My former neighbor Marie referred to it as Burning Dripside. It was also probably the coolest. I would have preferred more sun, but somehow, I barely remember the rain. (Gwen here, to say that I remember the cold because it’s a lot harder to look good when you’re cold! I would’ve preferred a wool sweater and jeans for most of the weekend, and had to suffice with platforms and fishnets…we must suffer.)