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It seems counterintuitive: a fire marshal making the trek to Burning Man, where giant wooden sculptures are ignited on purpose. But David Klein of the Las Vegas fire department did exactly that last September when he went to Black Rock on his own initiative to learn how pyrotechnics are done on the playa.
The move raised eyebrows among his colleagues.
“I get this reaction – ‘you went to where?’” says Klein. “It’s interesting - you just don’t really know about Burning Man until you experience it. You have to want to immerse yourself in it. It’s easy to do - there isn’t one person that I met up there that didn’t want to show me something, or teach me something or show me how something was supposed to work.”
On the Playa for a Purpose
Klein’s pilgrimage wasn’t entirely for fun. Las Vegas has its own burner culture, with satellite burn events held downtown on a regular basis.
“We were approached last December about doing a ceremonial burn for Las Vegas for the Burnal Equinox, which is six months away from Burning Man,” says Klein. “Our first impression was ‘no, we want to put fires out.’”
But Klein agreed to participate and started learning the fire codes associated with flame effects used in art and performance. And attending Burning Man offered many opportunities to further his education, since participants become citizen enforcers – in the pop-up culture of the festival, civilians take on official roles.
It wasn’t long before Klein was recruited for his expertise.
“The Burning Man fire marshal knew I was there, and so did the Bureau of Land Management,” says Klein. “They saw me drive up in my truck and the agent asked me if I had any incident command system experience ... I aligned myself immediately with FAST (Fire Art Safety Team), going out and doing inspections and helping to administer pyrotechnics.”
Klein says he learned things at Burning Man that he’ll likely use in Las Vegas, including the process that Burners use to regulate the pieces that they light on fire.
Photograph of sculpture by David Klein from 2012 Burning Man.
“I did a lot of inspections on sites,” says Klein. “The call them ‘being laminated.’ That means people submit a project, it has to be up to code, and we give them a permit. They could be artists ... it really is about art.”
Not Everyone is from NASA
Klein met a lot of artists that impressed him. Some didn’t.
“The gentleman who built the mantis was with NASA. He’s not silly,” says Klein. “That’s not to say everyone is from NASA.”
Kirk Jellum's "The Mantis," a 55 foot tall Burning Man sculpture that may go on permanent display downtown.
(Photo, Las Vegas Review Journal)
Bringing Home The Spirit Of Burning Man
Maybe as much as what he learned about best practices for burning sculptures, Klein brought home a sense of the spiritual importance of fire.
“What I went up there for was to learn about flame effects, the cult of Burning Man, and how people react to fire,” says Klein.
He wondered if the fires would have an inciting affect on the crowds, but he found that wasn’t the case.
“They don’t pump people up,” says Klein. “The big burn is at the end of the event. It’s very soothing.”
Klein says the final event is the burning of a wooden temple that burners have used for a memorial site.
“You can hear a pin drop there,” says Klein. “People leave pictures of loved ones that died. It’s like going to a crematorium or a wake. It’s very soothing.”