What a Burn

There was fire all over the playa last night as the city began its process of self-immolation, and all through the night giant bonfires raged.

It was a different kind of  burn night as there were not one, not two, but three big burns. The grandaddy of them all on this Rose Bowl burn night was, of course, the  burning of the Man.

The wind that had been blowing steadily for most of a couple of days had gone still by  the time Crimson Rose lit her torch from the cauldron at the top of the keyhole in  Center Camp. It had turned into a beautiful playa night, and there wasn’t a hint of dust blowing as Crimson and the procession made its way to the Man. Then they circled around the fire ring, distributing fire to the conclaves waiting to perform.  To keep with the football theme just for a moment, you could call the fire-dancing crews  the cheerleaders of Burning Man – Burn Team Burn!

With the conclaves all set in place, a crew pulled on the lines that raised the Man’s arms in the air, and the festivities were underway. There was drumming and dancing and thousands of people with shining eyes watching. All around the Man, hundreds and hundreds of fire performers did the routines they’d been working on for months.

Soon enough the time came for the dancing to end and the burning to begin.

The fireworks show began with sparkles and crackles,  and silver cascades of fire  poured down from the second level of the pavilion. Soon the Man had a streak of flame running up his leg, and the base became more and more consumed with fire. When the big booms came and the base exploded in flames, the people in the  inner circle had to scramble back to escape the heat. It was that intense.

The burn was beautiful and ferocious. The upper layer of the Man base fell in on the lower part, and then that whole structure burned for a good half hour more before the final upright lumber fell in on itself. Then the el-wire crowd and the blinkies and the thrill-seekers pushed toward the circle of embers. The crowd started circling around the fire in a tribal dance, waiting for the chance to race across the embers.

We didn’t wait to see who would be first to cross the flames. There were many burns to attend on this night, and the next one up was the EGO project of Laura Kimpton and Mike Garlington.

Laura Kimpton and Mike Garlington at the EGO burn

Photo Mike and his crew had spent most of the year making plaster casts of religious iconography, sports trophies, and other enigmatic detritus, then spray-painting them and attaching them to the giant EGO letters. Mike’s beau Meg said he’d been up at 4:30 most every morning to get going. “He gets such energy from the art,” she said.

Now the giant letters were outlined in a ring of fire, as a circle of fire-shooting trucks  blew blasts of fire into the night sky. They were like predators, waiting for a chance to burn down the EGO.

But the burning wasn’t left to them. After the fire symphony was finished, a group carrying flamethrowers moved in and set the sculpture aglow. It, too, burned beautifully, with showers of green flame spreading across the face of the letters.  The thinking was that not all of the artifacts would burn, and there would be tokens to take home from the playa when the embers cooled. Again, we didn’t wait long enough, but we heard that once the hippies did their dancing around the fire, pathways were formed through the smoldering ruins, and indeed there were treasures to be gathered. One friend brought home a doll’s head with a nail through it. Better than a t-shirt, for sure.

It was now almost 1 a.m., the night had turned chilly, and there was one last big project to go –  Burn Wall Street, the huge mini city in the far playa. We decided that it’d be best to stay some distance away when those flames began, and that was fine; you could see the bonfire there from across the desert floor.

And then, almost as soon as the night had begun, it was over. Streams of people made a beeline for the Center Cafe, like commuters heading home after office hours in the city. There will be one more night of fire, but this one will be different again. The Temple burns at 9.

More pictures from the evening:

Crimson Rose lit the flame that was carried to the Man


Mike Garlington at the EGO sculpture

Mike and Meg enjoying the flames


About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

12 Comments on “What a Burn