Propane: Putting the Burn in the Burning Man Festival

An LPG-fueled mushroom cloud over the Nevada desert, as seen at the Burning Man festival in 2008. (image: pixietart via flickr.com)

Tickets to the annual Burning Man festival, easily the biggest propane-using arts event in the world, went on sale last week. And the demand was bigger than an LPG-fueled mushroom cloud over the Nevada dessert. Eager ticket-buyers crashed the festival’s ticketing website in the first burst of sales, and more than 20,000 people bought tickets in the first 24 hours, reports the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Judging by last year’s attendance, around 50,000 people will join the party this summer — making the encampment something like the seventh biggest city in Nevada.

And with propane putting a lot of the burn in the Burning Man, we were curious about the guidelines for the fire-artists who bring their pyro-creations (or “flame effects”) each year. The festival may take an open-minded approach to most rules — many attendees eschew convention, and sometimes clothing — but there is a list of sensible requirements for using propane. “It is every artist’s responsibility to help Burning Man maintain [its] safety record, ensuring that we can all use fire in the ways that make our event one-of-a-kind,” according to the site.

(What exactly is Burning Man? Organizers are slippery about defining the yearly event held in Northern Nevada before Labor Day, writing on the website that explaining it to the uninitiated is “a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” But by some accounts, it brings to mind an inclusive, Woodstock-hearted arts gathering, with an emphasis on communal living and free expression. Also, they set a large wooden effigy on fire every year.)

The short of the guidelines is this: Stick to the standards of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Specific rules include no unmanned features, putting a quarter-turn kill switch on all fuel tanks, and leaving a safety perimeter around all flaming artwork. That means, a 30-foot tall flame-fluting Kokopelli, for example, would require roughly a 60-foot safety circle. Plus, a 12-person perimeter crew. In addition, a Fire Art Safety Team (FAST) will overse the action. Then there are additional rules for pyrotechnics and “mutant vehicles.” The libertine fire-lover may feel shackled by some of this, but it all reads like common-sense caution to us.

Thinking of trekking out to the desert with your propane tanks? Have a look at the handbook on setting up your work and the flame effect guidelines.

And here’s a glimpse of the man a’burning in 2008…