Excuse Me, Your Dog Is On Fire – Burning Man 2012


The highlight of my 2012 Burning Man experiences?
Burning a dog. A five story tall dog. A climable wooden statue of the Egyptian god Anubis.
Anubis is identified variously in mythology as the god of mumification and the afterlife, a protector of the deceased and their tombs, a Lord of the Underworld, and that his black color represents the fertile black soil of the Nile valley symbolizing rebirth.
The last part of the above is, for me, the real tie-in with the theme of Burning Man this year, Fertility 2.0.

From Chief Dan Fox, the lead designer and builder of Anubis:
“Anubis represents both the ephemeral and the eternal, the single moment of a phase change. Through the work, I hope to convey to participants a reflection of what they take and hold from the festival when they depart. Anubis is the companion from this life into the hereafter, and it is with that sense of frailty, nakedness, and solitude that we ultimately carry the message of unity, companionship, and strength we find at Burning Man into the default world.” http://www.anubis2012.com

To me, Anubis represented one thing specifically:
The opportunity to commit an artistic act of arson. The goal of the pyrotechnician is to entertain people with fire in its manifold forms. Anubis 2012 represented a unique medium to a practitioner of the fire arts. A “normal” firework show is pretty routine. Set the mortars, load the shells, light the shells (see the tag cloud on the homepage for previous posts). This job was anything butĀ  normal. It was an enormous work of art, a work that took hundreds of dedicated and skillful hours to complete, a work not finished with the final nail, a work completed only upon its destruction.

Anubis was built to burn.

It takes a special kind of artist to conceive and execute a work that is destined to be consumed by fire. This kind of art has a temporary physical lifetime and then passes into the afterlife of memories where it lives on for eternity. It was a deep honor to be invited by the artists to participate in the destruction of their creation. It is one thing to have someone buy and give you a bunch of fireworks and pyro devices to set and shoot but quite another for an artist to show you to their canvas and be asked to reduce it to ashes.

We, Captain Smashy, Espressodude, Helga, Wally (the Anubis pyro lead), and I among others (Oh yeah! A very pretty gal wearing just boots, a skirt, and a smile, yay!), composed the Arson Crew tasked with burning the dog. We spent the better part of Friday building, loading, and wiring the various pyro devices. Jack, the head of Black Rock FX, delivered the pyro to us, made suggestions, gave direction, and lined out a path of continuity for us. Then he said GO!

The pyro load (approximate from recollection):
30 multi-shot cakes, from 19 to 200-shot, in four different flavors.
10 Mine bags.
40 Whistling cakes.
5 5-second quick whistles.
2 Fountains.
50 Road flares cut into 150 pieces.
100 Gerbes in the form of 2 setpieces.
4 High-intensity illumination flares.
4 Fuel mines (ghost mines).
4 Concussion mortars.
20 Gallons of diesel.
20 Gallons of colored methanol.
6 Marine distress flares.
1 Cord of seasoned eucalyptus.
Nearly a mile of wire, 50 e-matches, and 100 feet of quickmatch.

The sequence of ignition in rough order, again from recollection:

2 200-shot cakes, shooting in a fan pattern. These served as a draw to attract the crowd as well as people who were across the playa waiting for the Burn Wall Street installation to burn. It was cancelled but news is hard to disseminate out there…

The illumination flares, behind shrouds on each of the 4 sides of the dog. VERY bright. They lasted about 1 minute.

The whistling cakes mounted on the chest and back. These lasted more than a minute and gave a unique effect as they shrilled away. A chorus of whistles with standing waves and odd beat frequencies.

The quick whistles blew out of the top of its head in a heavenly direction. I thought they were going to stay put. I like them much better now. I didn’t see these before they were loaded but from the sound you’d think they were the size of your arm…

The methanol buckets. 5 gallon buckets with electrically-ignited marine distress flares in the bottom were lined with trash bags and filled with methanol (wood alcohol). When the flares ignited, the meth bags burned through releasing a cascade of burning fuel through the hole in the side of the bucket where the flare was inserted. The methanol was mixed with various chemicals that gave the otherwise colorless flames some panache. There were several meth cues over the next minute.

The diesel buckets. The eucalyptus wood was palletized in 2 bundles and placed directly beneath the base of the statue. John made demo cuts to direct the flames up through the dog in a chimney effect for a fast burn. These were prepared identically to the meth buckets. When the flares ignited, the diesel bags burned through releasing a cascade of burning fuel down upon the cordwood.

The eyes of the dog had the gerbe (small fountains the size of a fat pencil) setpieces attached to them and lit up on cue making Anubis cast a fiery glare upon the crowd.

The ear fountains started up. I thought they’d be higher up but whatever, they burned and made lotsa sparks. I worked the ground crew, others did the vertical sets.

About now the mine bags started blowing. These were trash bags filled with leftover bits of fuse, stars, comets, small class C devices, and other pyro floor sweepings. Lots of crazy, delicious, dangerous shit wrapped up like tea bags. They were nailed to the exterior and not matched (fused). They depended on the kindness of wayward flames to light ’em up.

The multi-shots came next. These were set up on the four corners of the installation. There were 3 cues: (8) Exotic Mash, (4) Extreme Intensity, and (8) Red Alert (all Cannon Brand). If aerial fireworks are legal where you live, I highly recommend all of these. If they aren’t, go somewhere where they are and bring some home.

The remaining 4 200-shot cakes. The tubes in these cakes are upright in the center of the long axis (rectangular footprint) and spread out fan style from there. Very similar to mortar fan racks but much more rapid in firing. They remind me of the Iraqi anti-aircraft fire over Baghdad during the 1991 ass kicking we gave good ol’ Saddam after he got all touchy feely with Kuwait. These cakes were absolutely spectacular! They’re Lidu brand so it’s no surprise…

Then came the fuel mines and concussion hits.
A fuel mine is a steel tube filled with a liquid fuel, typically gasoline, and uses a sealed black powder charge to expel the fuel and ignite it. It produces an angry orange and black mushroom cloud fireball and can leave a giant black smoke ring afterward if the conditions are right. It makes one helluva whoosh-bang and the radiant heat wave can be felt at surprisingly long distances.
The fuel mines we fired are called ghost mines because we used methanol instead of gasoline. Using methanol and colorants gives the effect of clear, colored fireballs without the thick black smoke. Titanium sponge was added to the black powder charges to insure ignition after expulsion and can be seen as white sparks drifting out of the fireball.
A concussion mortar is a cylindrical steel billet, 3 to 4 inches in diameter and 5 to 7 inches long, with a 1 inch axial hole bored to within an inch of one end. It’s a big, strong steel cup that’s filled with standard 70/30 flash powder and electrically matched. On ignition it sounds like a cannon. They’ll make your bowel growl and your liver quiver.

Finally, all that was left were the chunks of flares nailed to the side of the platform. A few went up before the collapse with the rest igniting in the pile o’ fiery goodness.

The dog was pointed perfectly into the wind. The flames trailed behind it like fur. The eddy behind the blazing canine blended the wind with the extreme thermal turbulence provided by the hellacious blaze and spawned many fire devils. Smoke devils, too.

4 minutes and 25 seconds after the first pyro ignited, Anubis collapsed.

Blah blah blah, on to the pics and video…
One of the better videos I’ve run across is this one:

 

Jake (build crew) and Espressodude (pyro crew) discuss various demo cuts and Armageddon scenarios.

A diesel bucket atop cordwood in the base of Anubis. The flare can be seen through the hole. The wires lead to the firing slat and then on to the firing board.

 

Exotic Mash 19-shot cake.
E-match > quickmatch > OEM visco. Don’t try e-matching directly to visco. Dark skies suck and angry customers suck even harder.

 

Red Alert 25-shot cakes.

 

The product description on the Extreme Intensity 90-shot cakes.
Sounds about right for Burning Man…

 

Some fucko, Foxfur or something, wiring up a cake.
I used to get busted for doing shit like this.
Licenses are handy!
Mine bags are visible in the background.

 

Multiple wire runs. Each run is a separate cue with all devices wired in series for simultaneous ignition.

 

Captain Smashy wiring up another Extreme Intensity crazycake.

 

Chief Dan Fox – Artist, builder, scallywag.
(And lots of bare asses in the background…)

 

A temporary slat to keep the cues separate.

 

 

One corner’s pyro load. This one has an extra 200-shot cake.

The above photo shows 6 of 7 cues:
– 2 19-shots
– 2 25-shots
– 1 90-shot
– 1 200-shot
– 1 200-shot ‘draw’
– 1 fuel mine
– 1 concussion mortar (Not set in place yet)
The 2nd 200-shot cake is one of 2 (the other is on opposing corner) that served as ‘draws’. They were fired 10 minutes prior to the show in order to draw spectators from the Burn Wall Street burn which was supposed to go up at 9:30 PM. The show was scrubbed and Anubis was moved into the slot. On firing the 2 200-shots, people at BWS would see them and say “What’s that? Let’s go over there!”

 

A wide shot showing three corners and the plywood shrouds where the illuminating flares were placed.

 

 

 

The fuel mines and concussion mortars firing.

 

A video I ran across features a gal saying “They sound like guinea pigs!” when the mine bags ignite. Some whistly bits in the bags chirped and shot around on ignition…

A huge thank you to Dan, Jacob, John, and the rest of the Anubis crew, Jack and the Black Rock FX crew, the Anubis perimeter crew, and to the burners who made it all possible. The Anubis burn was THE highlight of my burn this year.
I look forward to the opportunity to burn shit next year and doing my best to Keep Burning Man Potentially Fatal.

I’m trying to trade one of my shirts to Patrick for a free and clear copy of this photo.
I’d really like a clear view behind the watermark, heh…

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Pyro School: Special FX Fireworks & Mobile Flamethrowers


I attended another pyrotechnics course at the same place as I took my general operator’s courses. The class was focused on proximate fireworks: fireworks designed to be used quite close to audiences and performers in theater, movie, television, concert, and sporting venues.

Flashpots, strobes, comets, crossettes, mines, gerbs, lances, airbursts, etc. Lotsa stuff to choose from. I’ve made and used many of these over the years and had a great time with them. You’d be amazed to see how close you can be to a properly designed and constructed pyrotechnic device…

The special FX pyrotechnics demo set up outside the classroom.

Comets and crossettes.

A concussion mortar. Loaded with an ounce of flash powder and ignited by an electric match, it sounds like a cannon…

Here’s my video of the live fire demonstration given today:

Also demonstrated was a commercial flame projector. Though nothing like the ones that I build, it’s still impressive for the simplicity of the device.

A commercial flame projector (“poofer”).

A view of the projector’s gas orifice and hot surface ignitor.

A video of Ken explaining and demonstrating:

Another highlight at today’s class was my friend Espressodude whom I build stuff with and camp with at Burning man. He has built “The God of Hellfire”, a motorized flame effect platform that traverses a full 360 degrees and elevates from 0 to 90 degrees (horizontal to vertical). With twin “flamethrowers” and an all electric firing system, it is quite possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever seen anyone build in their garage. He brought the flamethrowers out to my property a few weeks back for testing after the fire department asked him not to do it at his house anymore… Today was the first full system test. He had a custom trailer built to carry the self mobile platform that allows operation without unloading.

GoH in action.

His “Field Artillery Tractor” which is the tow vehicle. He built this during the winter of 2010.

Rear view of GoH.

A video of the God of Hellfire in action today:

I’ll share more on this particular project in weeks to come…

Pyro School: Finale


I’m finally finished with all of my coursework for my Washington state pyrotechnician’s license! The last course, as far as I’m concerned, was the best of all. We spent a bit more than 2 hours setting up and loading racks of mortars and wiring them up for electrical firing. We spent less than 2 minutes firing them…

1 3/4 inch shells with ematches installed.

Electrical firing allows the operator a greater degree of control over the timing of launch of the shells which can give a show a nicely polished appearance. It also makes timing the show to music a bit easier. Lastly, it is quite a bit safer than hand firing shells due to the removal of personnel from the mortar racks.

Ematches are used instead of fusees (road flares) to ignite the fuses of the shells. An ematch is simply a wire bridge, a low resistance, small diameter wire that heats upon applying electrical current. The bridge is at one end of a small gauge pair of wires while the other end has stripped ends that are shunted, twisted, together to reduce the possibility of inadvertent ignition. The bridge is coated with a mixture of flammable compounds that burn insanely hot when given the juice.

A classmate loads a 2 1/2 inch shell into a mortar.

Wiring shells in series for simultaneous firing of three tubes.

More wiring…

More wiring…

Connecting the leads to a firing slat.

The firing slat runs alongside the mortars. This one has 50 individual pairs of connectors allowing 50 cues (single or multiply connected items) to be fired from the board in any desired order.

A full fan rack hooked up and ready to go.

Espressodude doing some wiring…

Espressodude is a good friend of mine and is the one who nudged me into earning my Oregon and Washington licenses. We camp together at Burning Man and build propane flame effects together at home in the Portland area. He is a crew member with Black Rock FX, an awesome group of highly skilled and dedicated pyrotechnicians who coordinate, install, and fire many fireworks and effects displays at Burning Man. They did the Flaming Lotus Girls Tympani Lambada as well as The Trojan Horse shows last year. If everything goes right and I get the nod, I will be on the crew this year in some capacity…

All loaded and ready to go…

20 roman candles quickmatched together.

Smaller candles are typically not used in big shows. Smaller shows like high school games and grand openings and the like will use them quite a bit due to their low cost.

Pepper (middle) was itching to spray somebody with the class A extinguisher.

Pepper is one of almost ten folks at the display company (where we trained / launched at) who have switched from tobacco to personal vaporizers (e-cigarettes).

A 200 point firing board.

The firing board shown here will set you back around $4,000. They’re well made and will stand up to a shitload of abuse (within reason…). Each point, when touched with the stylus, the black test probe, will fire whatever is hooked up to the corresponding point on the slats. The slats connect to the 50-pair connectors at the upper right. The board is powered by the sealed lead-acid 12 volt battery shown atop the board. It is connected to the board by the terminals at the top left corner. To the right of the terminals is a switch that selects between test and fire. In the test position it restricts the outgoing current to a few milliamps in order to check the continuity of each circuit. If the cue is ok, you’ll see a light illuminate as well as hear a tone from the speaker. Although we check each cue before connecting it to the slat terminals, something can always go wrong. Test twice, fire once. There’s no do overs during the show…

Each connector at the lower right corner of the board connects to a 50-pair cable.

A classmate firing his shells.

Shells launching!

Espressodude shooting his load…

The candle racks firing…

My training card sits atop my copy of the show report.

I need four more live shoots, two letters of recommendation, and the passage of a state exam to obtain my Washington state license. Two more live shoots and passing a state exam will net me my Oregon license. Because I love certifications and licenses (locksmith, gunsmith, heavy equipment operator, alarm and security installer, etc.), I’ll probably go for my Idaho license as well.

Fireworks display companies are always looking for people to help on their shows. Think about it. Most folks spend their Fourth of July eating brats (or chasing them) and passively watching fireworks shows. Then there’s us pyros. We’d rather let someone buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of fireworks for us to fondle, er, handle, load, and fire. Unless you’re the lead pyro you won’t be making much. You’ll do well to cover your gas and get a lunch or dinner out of it. Money isn’t the point of it though. The opportunity to work with like minded individuals and the chance to entertain a crowd with the harnessed power of a thousand year old art form, that right there is payment enough for me.

Remember, fireworks aren’t just for the 4th. New Years Eve, Christmas, weddings, parties, funerals, grand openings, and movies are but a few other events that make use of splodey goodness.

Google your area or state for fireworks display companies and give them a call. Most will be glad to train you or tell you where you can obtain training. Most states don’t require licensing to fire shows. Of course, if you don’t have a license, you can’t lead a crew on a shoot. If earning some extra money is one of your goals, get your license, put some time in as a crew member, get to know the operators, build a reputation as a safety conscious and hard working individual, and you’ll be able to lead your own crew.

Flammable People


For some time now I’ve been playing with a phrase in my mind. Flammable People. It popped into my brain last year and I had nothing to do with it other than giggle when I thinkĀ about it. I’ve decided that it will be the name of a flame effects collective that I’d like to assemble. It would consist of people who build and operate both propane and liquid fueled (gasoline, diesel, kerosene, alcohol) flame effects devices.

I was messing around with MSpaint and came up with some concept graphics to use for the collective. I pulled an image of a DOT flammable placard from a safety supply website. In the second version I added a pedestrian icon from iconpedia.com. I’d like to find someone with the capability to print some prototype (small run, 5 – 10 pieces) placards and / or vinyl decals.

Flammable People Rev 1

 

Flammable People Rev 3

I’ve also thought of using Flammable People as a Burning Man camp name. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that everyone who would be part of it would have to build or operate flame effects. Fire admirers, junkies, and groupies would be 100% welcome. The next graphic might just become a gift sticker at the burn in 2012. Depending on the length of the name of 2012’s theme, it may be included as well.

Flammable People Rev 3 Burning Man 2012 Gift Sticker

 

Fire Toys


Here’s some photos of propane burning fire toys I have built. While I’d love to make a step by step tutorial, the nature of these systems prevents me from doing so. They aren’t inherently dangerous, quite the opposite actually. Rather, the construction and operation of them by individuals unfamiliar with building systems like these may lead to accidents that can be prevented by a little bit of knowledge. I built this “fire poofer” based on seeing photos and diagrams elsewhere on the net. The first two photos show the construction details of poofers. These are from The Department Of Spontaneous Combustion. The concept is simple. The poofer consists of an accumulator tank that also serves as a base. Rising from the accumulator is a manifold consisting of an inlet for the propane gas, a safety valve to shut off flow to the solenoid valve (or hand operated whistle valve), a solenoid valve (or whistle valve – a quick opening and closing valve typically used on steam whistles and air horns), a vertical ‘stack’ or pipe leading upwards, and a pilot light to ignite the released propane as it emerges from the top of the stack. My manifold is truly overbuilt. It is made up of stainless steel and 5,000 PSI hydraulic fittings (propane gas pressures seldom exceed 150-160 PSI). It’s what I had laying about in my workshop. It can easily be built from plumbing fittings available at most home improvement stores for less that $100.

Poofer fired by electric solenoid valve. It allows multiple poofers to be fired individually or simultaneously by remote control or programmable controllers. Of course, it can run a single fire poofer using a button like I do with mine.

A manually operated poofer. I’d recommend stepping up to a whistle valve for smoother operation.

The rest of the pictures are of my fire poofer.

Yes, yes I can!

Overall view

A closeup shot of the manifold

The pilot light

A wide open blast. It sounds like a jet engine. Has a deep throaty whistle / roar.

At Burning Man. Running it with short bursts or ‘poofs’

Controlling the solenoid valve with a signal generator

My “Auto-Fire” control

A finished view of the “Auto-Fire” controller box. The 10-turn pot allows fine control of the firing rate. It ranges from around 1 shot per second to 17 per second. On and off periods are identical, i.e. 1 second open, one second closed. Future iterations will allow adjustable periods independent of each other.
The timer circuit is based on a 555 timer IC and a solid state relay. It’s a 4 channel relay so it has expansion possibilities.

A video of the poofer running in Auto-Fire mode:

In manual burst operation it will produce fire rings in still air

I don’t know what this one came from but it’s from something of ours and looks cool

One of our propane flamethrowers (modified Manchester Power Jet commercial weed / brush burner)…

The Manchester Power Jet hand burner puts out 750,000 BTUs. See details at Manchester’s website. They’re not cheap. Expect to spend around $200. Here’s one for $130. That’s just the burner, no hose or regulator. They have a package deal including them which costs $220. I don’t use a regulator with mine, never have, not needed. I want wide open, right now, burn it all kind of flames. You can get a 10 foot hose online or at a propane dealer. The valve that it uses is what’s referred to as a whistle valve. It allows nearly instant full opening as well as infinitely variable flame adjustment.

A whistle valve available online from McMaster-Carr.

Here I’m running two Power Jets and the fire poofer at the same time. I’m using a foot switch to run the solenoid valve on the poofer.

 

A manually operated poofer:

The manually operated poofers can use a whistle valve (best due to the speed of operation) or a ball valve (less expensive). Electrically operated (using a solenoid valve) poofers cost the most to build and require a power source to operate the valve. I like them due to their adaptability to automation and remote operation. Manual ones are quite safe to operate but you are so close that you can’t appreciate the look of the fireballs and flares.

Be careful and have fun. Wear all cotton, wool, denim or aramid clothing when operating any fire toy. Synthetic fabrics melted onto skin are decidedly un-fun…

Update, May 5th, 2017. Nick Poole, another flame effects and electronics enthusiast, has a poofer build at Sparkfun you should check out. He listed this page as reference used in his research, AND, he’s still alive! If you’d like to improve your chances of survival and integrate a microcontroller into your project, go and learn how here.

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