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Will a notorious fiery sculpture add to downtown’s flame and fortune?





Downtown is turning up the heat and expanding its carbon footprint with giant flame-throwing art — and it’s considering putting control of the fire at the public’s fingertips.

“This is groundbreaking. There is no guidebook to what we are doing,” says Cory Mervis, the cultural attache between the Las Vegas’ Downtown Project and counterculture art event Burning Man. “It is all in flux right now. These things take time. There is only so much I can talk about,” she says. “I can’t say what is moving forward.”

She is talking about multiple large-scale art pieces that could be bolted to the downtown landscape. She won’t say who is making the decisions on what art will be brought or who will buy it, the price tags of which can burn a quarter-million dollar hole in someone’s pocket. But details do leak out and fuel speculation. You just have to ask the right questions.

“The Spire of Fire is one of the pieces we are looking at,” Mervis said.

The Spire of Fire is a monster that now lies dormant in the lush Washoe Valley, south of Reno. It has roared to life in Las Vegas before, for the Electric Daisy Carnival. You can find cell phone videos of it on the Internet.

Drawn to the four-story, fire-breathing, rusty metal structure, users step inside a steel control booth at the base, punch buttons and stare up. Their pupils shrink and grow, reflecting the awesome power of gas flame-throwers blasting flames around the metal arms and inverted stainless-steel pyramids. The conductors play the flames to the thumping music.

“Ha ha ha!” Artist Steve Atkins laughs maniacally. “Reaction comes all the way from, ‘That’s the coolest thing I have ever seen,’ to, ‘That it is frightening,’ and people want to move away from it.”

Since The Spire of Fire’s debut in 2010 at Burning Man, it has wowed crowds from Reno to New Jersey. “It’s a real crowd-pleaser,” says Atkins, adding that the Black Rock Arts Foundation is leading the negotiations to bring it to Las Vegas permanently. Jim Graham, communications director for Burning Man, would only confirm, “There have been talks,” and, “We normally don’t comment when we are in the talking phase.”

Some believe that downtown booster and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh may be behind the negotiations, but media relations manager for Zappos, Diane Coffey, said, “Tony is not negotiating for The Spire of Fire at this time.”

Whether or not it lands in downtown, the possibility of The Spire of Fire at Las Vegas’ fingertips has sparked the imagination of one of the nation’s leading flame architects, Nevada Liquid Petroleum Gas Board Chief Inspector Eric Smith. The city could help usher in the age of flame play.

“There have been talks about wanting to have it automated,” Smith said. “You walk up and say, ‘That is pretty neat’ and you put in 20 bucks and it goes off for a few minutes.”

He developed the Spire’s system of tubes, tanks, buttons, electricity and high-pressure, flammable gas, and has elaborate electronic safeguard controllers to automate it. He said it could involve lasers and alarms, as well.

The Spire was first tested in a corner lot surrounded by buildings in downtown Reno in 2011. Hundreds of people would crowd around. No safety ropes were necessary because it is built high enough that you can stand underneath it while in operation

It burns 100 gallons of fuel in a two-hour show. At $3 a gallon, it isn’t cheap. The Black Rock Arts Foundation funded the initial feeding of the beast to prove it could be done. Smith says the display was one of the first tight urban fire effects in history. From there, Spire roared to life at the Electric Daisy Carnival, where it burned 1,600 gallons a night.

The Downtown Project has already committed to at least one large-scale piece of fire art: The Praying Mantis. According to artist rendierings on the organization’s website, the 40-foot-long sculpture will be installed on Fremont Street and shoot 12-foot flames from its antenna.

Small-scale plans for fireplay are also in the smoky future of Downtown.

“They have a good plan,” says Cindi Cramer, artistic director for the fire play group Flamology. “They met with the fire department about wanting to have a fire venue here. They want to have a permanent fire stage with fire performances a couple of times a week.”

Regardless of what shape the flames take, large or small, downtown is hoping to challenge and change the old adage from: “If you play with fire, you get burned.” To: “If you play with fire, the masses will burn cash.”

Kyril (Ky) Plaskon is the Sierra reporter for Capital Public Radio of Sacramento.