Q: How does it work?
A: The basic idea is a small amount of fuel will spread as thin as possible on the surface of water. If the fuel can burn by itself [naptha can but lamp oil cannot, for instance] then the surface of the water will be on fire.
So, what you see is mostly water, with just a little bit of fuel.
Q: What's burning? Is that gasoline? Is that alcohol?
A: Well, it's mostly water, but the fuel I'm using is called
naptha, or white gas, or Coleman Camping Fuel. I use only a little
bit, and it spreads on the surface.
Q: Can I stick my hand in?
A: Yes! You can! The water protects you so you don't feel a thing. If the water dries, though, it can get hot and might even sting a little if you're not ready for it. You have plenty of time to put it out or get wet again before you get burnt, though, so it's pretty safe. If you have hairy hands, the hair will singe, however!
If it scares you, then don't! You're not proving your courage here. Panic is dangerous, so don't do it if it makes you uncomfortable. But if you're calm and focussed and ready to pat your hands together to put out the flames, or dunk them back int the water, you'll be fine. Also, scoop from the bottom of the stream. Most of the fuel has burned up by then, so the flame won't last long. Move higher as you feel confident and relaxed.
One other important note: white gas is carginogenic, and can
cause higher rates of cancer and other nastyness. White gas is
just like gas. Because it can still burn, means there is unburned
white gas in your hands. If this concerns you, then play with a [non-burnable]
cup or spoon or stick, also try not to breathe the hot air which does contains
smoke. Keep this in mind for your health.
Q: Where did you get the idea?
A: Well, I was camping with my friend Leslie, and since it was
his stove we used, I bought a can of fuel. We filled the stove, but
it didn't work, and we figured out that someone must have returned the
can of fuel filled with water! [The stinkers! >:-( ] So Leslie
dumped out the fuel into a cup and for the heck of it, lit it. The
fuel burned down to the surface of the water. I thought to myself,
"now that's an interesting idea!" This was the summer of 1998,
and I didn't do anything with the idea until around January.
Q: What other crazy ideas have you come up with?
A: <blush> Someone asked me this and I wasn't sure how to answer it at the time. It's true, I do all sorts of crazy things all the time, most of them don't involve fire though. :) I do tend to obsess on an idea, and many of my projects don't ever get finished...but enough of them do that I'm happy. :)
Here's some crazy ideas in my queue [I will eventually make web pages for them too]:
Other firefalls I'm thinking of:
My next firefall idea is The Urn -- an urn pouring a stream of water into a bottom pool. Simple, I hope to have this done in a few months [summer 2000.] So far I have a diary for it, and will make a full web page for it soon.
I want to make a firefall that spirals in the middle, so it makes a flame tornado.
I also want to make one that just has the waterlilies, like just after the Cauldron is shut down.
I'm also thinking of making on in a glass tank, so you can see the flames from underneith!
I'd also like to make a firewall -- like those tall slabs that have water running down them, but have the fuel run with the water.
And other fire ideas I have:
Firebell: I want to make a bell from a welding tank, like so many bells I have seen, but I want to invert it so the opening faces upwards, then fill it with propane and air and ignite it fron the top. If all goes as planned, the wavefront should move downwards and strike the bell, which should give a gentle, deep ring, and even-more-hopefully will change the pitch as the heat moves through the metal. I have no time this year, so this will have to wait until next year. Other non-fire ideas I have:
Firewalk: make an arragement of tiles with something to wick fuel underneith so fire wafts in the cracks.
Firewalk II: do the same using sand -- if all goes well, this should leave flaming footprints! Might be fun to do an installation at the beach temporarily.
Color Space: My second idea for Burning Man this year  was to recreate an art project I made years ago of a table with a red, green and blue neon light in it, arranged in a triangle -- the primary colors for light. I'd like to recreate this as a full room-sized space. Any white objects within the space would be all diffierent colors of the rainbow, because the any one side of the object would face [at most] two of the primary colors. I had the parts, but just didn't have time to set it up. I hope to get it finished sometime soon.
Next year  I want to make a vehicle of some kind. Roving couches are old-hat now... My first idea is to make a Lay-Z-Boy that rides over 6' tall somehow. A friend suggested I make it a Monster Truck with big wheeles! In the end, I'll probably get a golf cart and decorate it.
I also want to put a gumball machine waaaaaay out somewhere far far away on the playa! So if someone stumbles on it, they can turn it and get out a gumball... Put a little mylar unbrella over it too. :) It'd be fun to rig up a camera, too, to take a picture of everyone who turns the handle!! To this end, I found an old snack machine at Urban Ore on Gilman Ave in Berkeley! I may modify my idea to use the snack machine instead. It'd be easier to add a camera to this!
I also bought an old turnstyle when I bought the top bowl for the firefall, and hope to make velvet ropes and "form a single line" into nowhere. :)
I get -- and welcome -- lots of suggestions. It's wonderful how the firefall sparks a lot of brainstorming! Folks who talk to me often are amazingly intelligent.
Most often, I discard ideas based on three important criteria: difficulty in implementing, safety issues, or aesthetic reasons. Most often the first.
Keep your suggestions coming, though, even if you think they're unrealistic! It keeps me on my toes and helps me think through things, and often inspires me to come up with even better solutions! And feel free to add your suggestions to my guestbook!
I'm going to list a number of common ideas which are commonly suggested, but I absolutely discard, and my reasons.
Suggestion: Add dry ice to cool the water.
Reason to discard: First of all, this is just not possible. Dry ice is way too expensive to be practical in cooling over 300 gallons of water. Second of all, I've dropped a shard of dry ice into water thinking it would cool it, but it tasted nasty, and wasn't cooled at all. So it would take a LOT of dry ice to cool water at all. Another problem is that the CO2 given off would most certainly snuff out the flames. All in all, it's just not going to work for the firefall. Water ice would work a lot better and not add anything to the water, but it's also too expensive to be feasible. A radiator of some sort would work better, but I just don't feel this is a serious enough problem to warrent adding the complication, the extra equipment, and a possible leak to the system.
Suggestion: To keep the flames lit, inject oxygen either at the
surface or into the water.
Reason to discard: This is too dangerous a solution -- it's enough for me to be carrying and dealing with a combustible fuel, much less add compressed oxygen to the setup. Also, it adds a level of complication -- and expense -- to the setup. This is a common suggestion, since I explain how keeping a pilot light lit is a matter of oxygen -- not fuel -- it's easy to focus on the oxygen part.
Suggestion: Use an electric ignition system.
Reason to discard: Safety. I get the heeby-jeebies thinking of electrical wires that could possibly fall into, or otherwise connect with, a large body of water that folks are sticking their hands into, while they are standing on [usually] wet ground surrounding it. Just sounds like an accident waiting to happen! [I keep the fuel pump far away from the water for just this reason, and do my best to make sure the extention cord and pump and all electrical connections are above ground level, in case the pipes suddenly came loose and flooded the area.]
Other suggestions for keeping the flames lit, which are more plausible: Use "always stay lit" birthday candles. I really like this one, and will try it next time I light up. Pizoelectric ignition. [My own idea.] I like it better than adding an electrical spark ignition system, because the amount of electricity is a lot smaller and shorter lived than something that is plugged into a wall socket. I'm working on this now. Another idea: add a fan to the fuel tunnel. [My own idea.] This is a possibility, but, as I mentioned, I don't like the idea of electricity anywhere near the water.
Suggestion: Use an electric pool pump. Or other pump suggestions.
Reason to discard: I am in desperate need of an electric pump, but every suggestion I've gotten has been waaaaaaaaaay too small! I think when I say, "260gpm" that it doesn't really sink in just how much water that is!! That's 15,600 gph! More than 4 gallons per second! Pool pumps have 1.5"-2" fittings. My pump has 3" fittings. Another 200gpm pump has 4" fittings. The applications that pumps of this size are used in are agriculture or waste-water pumps. I need one mongo amount of water. More than seems reasonable. I guarantee any pump suggestion is almost certainly inadequate.
If you think you've found an electric pump for me, please do drop me a line! But look closely at the size. It's gotta be 10,000GPH or more. Besides, I get a sick and twisted thrill when I get to explain to each person that I need at least 30 times the flow of the pump they're suggesting! :)