The symbolic relevance of the Man and his inevitable burning has over the years drawn camping-chair philosophers to speculate about the significance of our centerpiece ritual. While most aim to answer the why of the ceremony, the how is often overlooked. It’s one of the least known stories of Burning Man culture simply because across Black Rock City participants enjoy unfettered access to all the splendors of the event, except for the art burns, which are well protected (for good reason). The only folks who know how the Man transmutes from larger-than-life effigy into char and dust are the Pyro Pirates of the Playa.
These high caliber scallywags are charged with the task of directing the blaze. The mysterious In-Sin-Erator heads up the team that manages the Man’s billowing departure. She regulates conditions for fuel and explosive usage along with designing and spearheading the jubilant finale as the onsite pyrotechnics lead. In this rare look behind the curtain, we caught up with In-Sin-Erator to discuss the ordinance used to burn the Man, the training required to be on the team, and the plan for expeditious escape once the fuse is lit.
Qualifications for New Crew Members
According to In-Sin-Erator, a qualifying recruit for the Pyro Pirates team “MUST know either pyro or the [Burning Man] event, preferably both.” With safety always in mind and the threat of explosive doom ever-looming, the majority of pyrophiles are quickly conditioned to keep step with the rest of the crew. Most of the Pyro Pirates “have worked in the entertainment industry for years, on different aspects,” In-Sin-Erator says. “Some of the crew have done aerial displays (such as the 4th of July), others tour with rock bands or work in the special effects industry for either TV shows, movies, and live concerts. There are a couple of us who do ALL of the above.” To get used to the dust and wind, training for the Pyro Team is all completed onsite.
When lives are on the line, there’s no room for shenanigans. Pyro Pirates must be a cultural fit. “All joking aside, we are dealing with explosives and liquid fuels,” says In-Sin-Erator. “I must be able to trust them with my life… [That’s why] I will only bring people on that I know and trust.”
The Escape Plan
When all are gathered around the great circle perimeter to watch the Man burn, the Pyro Team sets up shop on the side of the inner circle to oversee the show. As the pyro wraps up, the crew vanishes into smoke and dust via a carefully pre-planned escape route. “Once we have completed firing the show and the last cues go off, all the crew, who are evenly distributed around the structure to watch for any problems, come back to the firing position,” In-Sin-Erator says. After a quick headcount to verify everyone is safe, they load up on their vehicles to make a triumphant ride out to the perimeter. “We generally get just past the art car circle and stop to watch the structure burn and collapse, before we go back to camp and collapse as well, as it’s been a long day for all of us.”
There are a few phases to this ritual burn. First is the pyro show, “usually with what we call the Angel Look,” In-Sin-Erator says, “where the sparkle fountains on the Man ignite, highlighting him, framing him, and reveling in one last opportunity to see him whole. The flash-and-sparkle display is next.
Approximately halfway into the show, we start the Man’s fire in his chest and legs. Then we start the internal fire of the structure to ensure the Man is on fire before the structure is engulfed.” The last stage is dominated by external blasts of fireworks. “The Burning Man event as a whole is limited to consumer grade and/or ‘theatrical’-grade fireworks.” In-Sin-Erator explained. “This is due to the limitations of our BLM event permit.” The amounts and how those explosives are implemented vary from year to year based on the theme, the design of the structure and the whims of In-Sin-Erator’s imagination. According to her, “This year’s show will be a bit less of a typical pyro display and a bit more of a highlight on the structure. You’ll have to watch the show to see all the fun details we put in.”
Photos courtesy of In-Sin-Erator