Interview with Oliver Macro on Fire Performance Safety
Image by Amandala Photography
Interview with Oliver Macro on Fire Performance Safety
For the readers who haven't met you before, tell us a bit about yourself! What are your experiences with fire spinning and performance? Greetings, all! I was first introduced to the world of fire play in 2007, attending the Tuesday night fire gatherings in Auckland. Through that community I was slowly introduced to festivals such as Kiwiburn, Heat, Circulation, and Under The Spinfluence, where I developed friendships with community members nationwide that enabled me to travel and play with fire folk all over New Zealand. Interestingly it's been through working as a sound technician and DJ that I've become somewhat prolific in the circus community. I don't consider myself a particularly skilled object manipulator, and perform rarely, however I enjoy it as a form of play and am usually happy to take on organisational roles on the periphery. As a result I'm usually the one herding performers about, rather than performing myself.
I hear you're initiating a new national-level organisation to unite the regional fire communities, could you tell us a bit about that? At the moment I'm putting out some tendrils and seeing what interest and potential there is for such an organisation. As the art and pastime has grown in popularity it's become all the more apparent to me that some such organisation is becoming necessary, especially having noted some concerns regarding sensible conduct and fire safety arising recently. ANZCA's recent coming into existence has been somewhat of a motivator also, I should note. Flow artists, fire folk, and object manipulators by nature are a fairly loose-knit section of the wider circus community, so whatever organisation takes place need not be too complicated. A primary objective at this point is to simply connect the dots between various groups across the country, and establish a means of sharing and standardising our common areas of knowledge, with safety practices obviously being a large part of that.
Beyond that, it remains to be seen, and I'd love to hear from anyone involved in these groups as to their thoughts and opinions on how such an organisation may best serve the fire and flow arts community at both regional and nationwide levels.
What would you say are the core responsibilities of the person in charge of fire safety? I'm of the opinion that awareness comes first and foremost. Knowledge of what is considered suitable clothing, quality prop construction, the incendiary properties of fuels used, necessary safety equipment, etc, as much as it is keeping an eye on any performers and ensuring that no accidents happen. Prevention is key, and to this extent they need to ensure that performers are neither intoxicated, using poorly constructed props, nor wearing any clothing that is either flammable or likely to get caught up around a wick. Also, ensure any long hair is tied up and out of the way, however best works for you. If accidents do happen, then have the sense of immediacy to quickly deal with the situation. While it is important to have a designated safety person at all times, these are responsibilities that we all share, at all times. Watch out for your friends and fellow fire folk, as it may well be you that first catches a glimpse of something that saves someone from injury.
What key fire safety measures you and your staff/crew always ensure before lighting up any fire? First up, we'll set out a boundary for the fire circle and get our fire blankets out and ready. We keep an extinguisher on hand with a water supply should they be necessary. We'll keep fuel and dipping buckets in a safe location away from where performers light up, and settle on a maximum number of performers in the ring at any one time. We also evaluate the state of the weather and keep an eye on prevailing winds, considering that they can easily blow flames around. It's worth mentioning that we use Pegasol (Solvent 3440 Special) as a standard fuel. It costs a bit more than kerosene, however burns cleaner, and has far less of a nasty stench. Knowing the differences between fuels and their flashpoints (the temperature at which they ignite) is very valuable information. Speaking of fuel, it's always wise to spin, or drip off excess fuel from wicks before lighting. Make sure you're spinning off in a designated area so as to not to soak others in fuel. Also, ensure performers know what they're doing. Make sure newbies develop some rudimentary skills with an unlit prop before even considering setting it alight, and don't give a prop to the inevitable drunkard who stumbles along asking to have a go.
What key considerations and procedures are you and your staff/crew trained in when a flame is active? Many of us have formal First Aid training, and can evaluate the severity of a burn so that we can quickly offer treatment. Serious injuries are thankfully very rare, however should anyone receive one, that training offers guidance on making an immediate decision as to whether we need to either get that person to an A&E/Emergency Room, or if it's serious enough call for emergency services to come to us. In monitoring performers it's wise to continually gauge whether a performer is calm, confident, and enjoying themselves, or looking as though they may be panicking. Large flames on certain props especially can be quite intimidating and easily overwhelm even experienced performers. Being able to identify when someone is being overwhelmed by their prop, and calling out to them with fire blankets to quickly smother and extinguish the wicks is a really valuable ability. Be sure to keep an eye out for anyone wandering into the fire circle as well, and quickly remove them if they do so. While fire safety measures are there to keep the risk and impact of an accident to a minimum, accidents can still unfortunately happen. Can you describe a fire-related accident you've seen or experienced, and how you think the situation could've been handled differently?
It is with considerable gratitude that I can say that in eleven years of doing this, I've never seen a really serious accident take place. I've seen a couple of nasty burns, a few cases of unwise choices in clothing catch fire, and some equipment failures, but never anything that has seriously threatened someones life and/or well being. That's not to say I haven't seen some such possibilities effectively prevented though, which is why it's crucial that proper planning and preparation takes place. I do want to note that this track record has been maintained despite having participated in some extremely risky activities. I've participated in sword-based display fighting, helped prepare for full body burns undertaken by trained stunt performers, used flamethrowers and a variety of flame-based art installations, to name a few. All of these activities have gone off with little to no incident because we've taken every precaution towards ensuring such a result. It can never be overstated just how important it is to be adequately prepared, and above all to respect the core element of what we're working with; the flame itself.
If our community members want to help build a standard of safe fire practices, what's the best way for them to get in contact with you? Via either 'firstname.lastname@example.org,' or the 'Fire & Flow Arts Aotearoa/New Zealand' Facebook Group.