Build a Burn Club

I was recently asked to give the low-down on setting up a practice fire space like Burn Club.  BC is an open spin jam that’s been running for over a decade in Culver City.  It’s completely legal and has been slowly nudging up the lines of respectability.  And since I’m brain-dumping, I thought this would be a very appropriate venue.



I did not, by any stretch, come up with the idea of Burn Club alone.  When I first started fire, I was invited to the semi-weekly spin jam called Fireplay.  Shortly thereafter, I became one of the first Shins for the Burningman Fire Conclave.  I needed a safe place to practice and asked if I could take up the opposite weekends from Fireplay.  Well, there was a lot of crossover, and by the time Bman was over, Fireplay was a weekly event.


In steps like this, Fireplay continued to grow.  At first, we could all park inside the fenced in area where we practiced,  But as things got bigger, more people had to park on the street.  Fireplay was not in a particularly good area.  The increased traffic drew the local criminal element, more cars got broke into, even when we weren’t there.  The owners of the local establishments were forced to hire security.  One note about the fire group in the parking lot and we were looking for a new home.


We spent a year flitting from overpasses and parking lots, parks and private residences.  Private locations always eventually wanted money, other areas always eventually drew police attention.  Still I searched and searched as though this were a full-time job.  Eventually, when asking about one park, the officer told me to get in touch with someone from a different jurisdiction.  That ended up be exactly what we needed and Burn Club was born.



What I learned from all that is that location is king.  Fireplay was right Downtown LA, across from a Greyhound station.  People could, and did, just wander by and watch.  This didn’t bother us, but it contributed to the impinging criminal element (and one brush with Fox News).  One parking lot was in full view of a highway.  We were there 9-11-02, Yes, one year after 9-11.  Dumb,   I tended to favor baseball diamonds for safety sake.  Fenced area for spectators, dugouts for fuel, lights, and nothing to burn until you hit second base.  Never panned out, and another problem was night games.


Eventually, I learned that visibility is the real problem.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Our current park hides us completely.  That last fire marshall hooked us up with it specifically because of that.  Indoor locations are good, too, but they tend to want money.  So did the parks dept, but it was much less.


Forced fees will reduce the crowd and entitles audiences.  “I paid my $5, I don’t gotta leave”.  There’s something about paying for entry that changes the social contract for some people.  But when you ask for donations, you can set rules that must be followed.  Whatever your monetary situation, be prepared to pay out of pocket each night.  Theoretically, BC ran on donations, and just $25 a night at first.  Often donations still did not cover us.



Once you have a location, you need to secure the owner’s permission, in writing.  If they’re ever not there while you’re practicing, you can be sure THAT’s when the cops will show up.  For private locations this is usually as easy as knocking on the front door.  It’s hard to not know the owner when you get permission to use private property.


For open areas, things start getting a little more tricky.  Public parks are usually owned by the city they’re in.  Beaches tend to be owned and managed by different authorities: they could be managed by the coast guard, run by the forestry service, but authority lies with the city. Empty lots and such tend to have similar issues.  Keep a list of who you called and the results.  Eventually, you might give up and assume there is no owner.  The police will want to examine this list,



For any action, at any location, there is an authority who can say you may or may not do that thing.  In the US, the final authority is the constitution, It grants the individual states powers over any topic not covered in it’s text.  As for fire, it’s often the case that states defer to counties, and counties to local jurisdictions.  Sometimes the buck isn‘t passed.  In Texas, they have a statewide fire performance licensing system, in Nevada, a statewide registry that passes to the counties after that.  Orange County, CA holds all authority within the county, and does not defer down from there.


Some smaller towns (very rare) might defer to the police to deal with fire codes and such.  More often than not, though, you will be dealing with the local fire department.  Most FDs are broken into two parts: prevention and suppression.  The suppression wing are the guys that get all the pictures as they fight the fires directly.  Prevention types are more administrative, and spend a lot of their time inspecting gathering places for code violations that could lead to a fire.


Typically, the people who can write a permit are in the Suppression zone, so calling the local unit will just get you transferred there.  Each city puts the people who write permits for us in a different area.  Here in LA city, it’s the “Public Assemblage” unit, and all the laws are activated based on how many people are in attendance.  Other cities lump us in with pyrotechnics, some with camping, etc.


My suggestion for navigating this tree is as follows.

  1. Have a video of fire performance at the ready, heck make a tinyURL of the link.  I put up a whole section in the Red Swan site specifically for this.  It’s a dozen or so videos that break down each fire art and has a fairly typical performance shown.
  2. Have a quick line about what fire performance is that is both truthful, and easy to snap off, with connections to the real world that people can easily understand.  “Ever seen a fantasy movie with all the people with torches?  We use stuff like that, spin them around our bodies to the beat of fast paced music.”
  3. As you get closer, be ready with a more comprehensive description of what we do, including fuels, safety measures and equipment.  The NAFAA information pages has more than enough info about fuels for this step.

If you’re lucky, someone else will have already done this and the department will know where to send fire performers, fire dancers, fire breathers, or some other keyword.  If not, you may be in for a tiring afternoon of redirections through the department.  It may help to keep a list of the people and sub-departments you spoke to.  This may help facilitate people In their decision tree.



Okay, with the owner and JHA (Jurisdiction Having Authority) both on the same page, you need to next decide how your event will be run.  Not only do you need to decide what days, weeks, months and times you will be running, but there are two very important differences: performers only and audience allowed.  Certain jurisdictions may not care whether or not an audience is present, but I’m sure many do.  For example the vaunted NFPA 160 codes that many jurisdictions use or reference are “Proximate to an audience”.  If a jurisdiction us using the NFPA, they may have no codes at all for “not proximate to an audience.”


Having no codes has it’s ups and downs.  The up side is that you can help define how that department handles fire performers.  The down side is that they may go off and make things up on their own.  Some examples of this include: $1000+ fire safe on site, Chicken wire between audience and performers, asbestos clothing, water extinguisher for the fuel station, Pyro 1 endorsed operator present, etc.  Such unreasonable restrictions are often beyond the fairly rational 160 codes.


If the department has a sweeping rule for all fire acts, or has something specific for practices of your type, then you’re done.  If not, you’ll need to negotiate.  My first recommendation is to adhere to rigid truth.  If your community has some idiots in it, don’t try to cover them up.  If you know every detail of your fuels, great, but don’t try to make things up.  Often the fire departments are trained in asking leading questions that you’ll feel like you NEED to answer with something better than “I don’t know”.  This is a mistake.  They can spot a lie faster than a Jr high gym teacher.  And those guesses, cover-ups and lies will ultimately count against you.


In fact, pointing out that a practice space is a great way to normalize fire safety standards in a community is a great way to earn points.  Letting them know that you use [this] fuel because that’s what your teacher told you to use will ring honestly.  And admitting that people will find a place to practice anyway, but may not have someone enforcing safety standards, or educating them in safe practices is a reasonable scare tactic that will also ring true.


You may have to show them what fire performance is.  You may have to deal with restrictions at first that may fall off over time.  It‘s good to dig into their world, let them see your face at THEIR meetings, offer to educate their staff, etc.  Ultimately, getting the permit will be easier and cheaper if you: eliminate audience, restrict access to the public, have a distinct set of codes, and a clear chain of command.


Typically, they’ll want someone in charge to be onsite at all times.  Someone invested in safety.  At Burn Club, the people in charge put up their insurance each year with the city.  Our permit with the city requires that an authorized member be onsite, in charge, and responsive at all time during the event.  Be ready for this, particularly if you use the above scare tactic, or really try to sell safety education.



In any situation, it is the job of all fire safety personnel to protect the Audience, the Venue, and then the Performer, in that order.  If you have an audience, that’s just one more complication in the structure of safety.  It also activates all those “proximate to audience” rules.  If you eliminate the audience, you only have the venue and performer to concern yourself with.


At Burn club, we spin on a b-ball court, so the venue is very secure.  We only worry in late summer when surrounding plants dry out.  Since the fuel station is part of the venue, it becomes our #1 concern.  The main spotter for each act is placed between the performers and the fuel station.  Additional spotters help surround the performer(s).

This simplified formula has worked in so many ways.  As people visit the club, they can see the wisdom in it.  They can easily translate it to their own spinning experiences: practice or live.  And the can pass it on.  In just a couple years after we opened BC, strangers started asking if I had a spotter…at Burning Man!  I know it seems normal now, but back then, fire was anarchy and we paid for it in burned tents, wounds and death.

But… it HAS to be enforced.  Unenforced rules quickly get ignored, and do no one any good.



At  BC we’re 3 blocks from the local police station, 2 blocks from a firehouse, and 5 blocks from a hospital.  We’ve always had the option to call the police if things get crazy.  But it’s the in-between stuff that’s hard to manage.  Infractions that aren’t serious enough to call the police, but enough to threaten the permit (drinking, smoking near fuel, fire outside the defined area, etc).


I think BC inadvertently did things the right way.  When a conclave was around, the leader of that conclave could kick someone from the group.  And when we started, it was by invitation only of full members.  This meant that each person was directly responsible for the people they invited.  If Alice invites Bob, and Bob gets rowdy, it was up to Alice to deal with him.  Once we had some momentum, we opened the doors.  The people trained in our rules always outnumbered any group of jackholes looking to do things their own way.


But sometimes, we’ve had to ask people to leave.  And sometimes, we’ve had to tell people they weren’t welcome back.  And, yes, sometimes we call the cops.


Simple rules, as few as possible… rigidly enforced.


Our new policy is that you get one minor infraction.  Everybody gets a whoopsie.  2 infractions in one night and you “perform” the rules in the style the onlooking attendees decide (Ie shakespeare, country western singer, droopy dog, etc).  The idea is a little public shaming goes a long way.  And, EVERYONE get a refresher of the rules.  We haven’t had a third infraction yet, but that’s left up to the member in charge.



When we started BC, a couple of ladies from the parks department would sit in chairs in the back of a pickup truck and watch us almost all night.  That helped maintain a certain level of legal paranoia.  Years later, we learned they were drinking wine and passing a joint,  very Off Duty.  But I’ve always felt it’s better to err on the side of paranoia than not.


If you’ve ever seen a chopper in the sky, it probably has an IR scope, which means they know exactly where you are.  Many fire departments can’t afford to send in the dogs of war every time there’s an underground party.  So they send in an undercover to take pictures and make notes.  I’ve seen the LA book, it’s creepy.  THey use this like a scorecard to determine if you’re worthy of a permit later.  A lot of performances were shut down at the last minute because they had poor marks in that book and the dept. felt like screwing with them.


I’ve found that a fake security camera can go a long way, too.  “Hey dummy, Put that out, and smile” [point at camera].  Also, if something is a problem area, like noise level, you’ll often have to take control of it yourself.  Have the community jam box and disallow others from bringing in equipment.  Etc.



Well, I think that’s about it.  I realize this isn’t a step 1, step 2, kind of thing for setting up your own spin jam, But I think you’ll quickly realize that your experience will be VERY different from mine, or any others.  Just remember: Safety first, Honesty, and when necessary, fear.