You’ve seen their pyrotechnic handiwork on American Idol, the Olympics, and the Superbowl.
But every year, come summer’s end, Dimitri and Beckie Timohovich head to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to oversee the massive burn of the Man effigy at Burning Man, the 70,000-strong week-long community celebrating art, self-expression, and self-reliance that, this year, runs August 28 through September 5.
There, the couple—who answer to burner nicknames Incinerator (Beckie) and Demon (Dimitri)—work with the festival’s Fire Arts Safety Team (FAST), various pyro-involved art projects, and Burning Sky, the Burning Man camp of skydivers whose attached pyro devices leave sparkling trails as they fall. But their signature production is the imposing fireworks show and controlled burn of the towering Man structure that climaxes the event.
Their approach echoes the Burning Man ethos of community. “I never ask my crew to do something I’m not willing to do,” says Beckie. “If they see you taking a leadership role and jumping into the trenches with them, they’ll follow your lead.”
“Each pyrotechnic lead has his own way of getting things done, but he should also be willing to learn from his crew,” adds Dimitri. “You never know when someone can come up with a better way of doing something.”
Because the Man isn’t rigged for pyro until burn day, preplanning is more complicated, assuming some 40 to 50 hours. Before arriving on the playa—the location’s flat desert expanse—Beckie plans the show and creates a plot booklet for crew members that breaks down the program per device type and placement.
Burning Man’s Bureau of Land Management permit allows only off-the-self consumer-grade fireworks, sold as prepackaged multiple effects in a box, called “cakes,” with names like Waking Dead, Trailer Trash, and Purple Melody. Different-sized mortars shoot multiple and single stars. The Man fireworks use more than 325 cakes and 200 mortars.
Still, says Beckie, “It’s not that intricate a show, because the firing system has to burn. If I were doing a bigger show, with a more elaborate and expensive firing system that I could retrieve, I could go with more detail. Also, I have a 360-degree audience, so I have to be very careful how I place things, how they’re ignited, and which direction they’re facing.”
Once on-site—in a fenced-off camp on the outer rings of the community, given the potential danger of its contents—the roughly 20-member crew works mornings to configure the cakes and wire fuses before mounting them to boards for easier transport to the structure on burn day. The previous evening through that day, the Burning Man build crew ropes off the Man, clears inflammable debris, and makes strategic cuts in the wood to weaken it so it burns and collapses faster. The pyro crew then places the boards and liquid fuels around and throughout the structure, and runs cabling from the devices to a control board.
“The structure has to be strong and support through whatever winds are going to come up that day, but weakened enough, so when it burns, it will come down—in theory—in 20 to 30 minutes,” says Dimitri, in a nod to the 2014 Man burn, which took an unexpected 86 minutes due to thick laminate on the wood.
Over the years, Man burns have become increasingly difficult, as simple wooden effigies have given rise to multi-floor levels designed to support ongoing hordes moving through the structures. As a result, permits now demand flame retardant materials.
“Because the Man is a public structure for the time the event is open, it has to comply to building codes,” says Dimitri. “Then we have to come in and burn down something that’s not supposed to burn.”
Drones—a ramping epidemic three years ago that’s since been curtailed to a few dozen permitted fliers—are banned from flying near the Man on burn day, to avoid potential crashing and static that might trip exposed wires.
“We’ve stopped police, fire crews, and skydivers from buzzing the Man,” says Dimitri. “Our job is already inherently dangerous, and we don’t need extra elements to make it even more so. We already have lightening contingencies. If we had a wire that was open and static happened to hit it—it’s an unnecessary risk.”
But the biggest challenge is weather—namely, the playa’s infamous dust storms that can kick up without warning. “We had to do a weather hold for over three hours one year during white-out conditions,” recalls Beckie. “At that point, we just sent our crew back to camp, while Dimitri and I stayed at the structure. Because there’s pyro involved and wiring needs to be maintained, we have to make sure no one comes through the area.”
During the program, Beckie watches, script in hand, and calls cues to a crew member at the control board with a pinboard firing system. Cabling between the device and board contacts creates electrical circuits that, when closed by touching the contacts, fire the devices.
“We have three separate firing systems that control the Man burn—100 in the show proper, 300 in the secondary firing system, and the tertiary firing system, which has a lot of product on one big hit,” says Beckie.
The Man uses two of the three types of burn processes: pyrotechnics, which involves explosives, projectiles, and devices that can burn independently of oxygen, and open flame, those ignited by solid and unpressurized, unenhanced liquid fuels. Not used are flame effects—flames created by fuel combustion created by an action other than simply being lit on fire. For example, the process utilized by flame-throwing art cars.
“Fireworks come first. Then we start burning the Man before moving to the base about 25 cues after that, so the Man is engulfed in fire before he falls,” says Beckie. “We start the fire on the wind side and let that carry it throughout the structure.”
This is one of the few arenas that eschews the sardonic Burning Man slogan “Safety Third.”
Since 9-11, pyrotechnic safety has become increasingly stringent, regulated, and systematic across the entire pyro pipeline, from manufacturing and purchasing to transportation and production. Events are cracking down with solutions like concentric barriers to prevent tragedies like the man who committed suicide by running into a fire at a Burning Man-style regional event in Utah in 2014.
“It used to be worse before, but we always have somebody—usually naked—who wants to break the perimeter and run and touch the Man moments before he goes up in flames,” says Dimitri. “Kind of the equivalent of the streaker at sporting events.”
Now, there are several layers of protection to bypass: the original perimeter consisting of trained safety volunteers from FAST and the Black Rock Rangers (which include a sub-group, the Sandmen, taught more stringent burn perimeter enforcement), professional firefighters, and pyro crew.
“We told our crew, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, they go down,’” says Dimitri. “I remember watching one of our crew members doing a clothesline in front of the guy and catching him right in the neck. The guy did a backflip and hit the floor. The Rangers came and picked him up, one on each leg and arm, and dragged him away. Now, people are a lot more trained to see what’s going on and take care of it a lot faster.”
Both Beckie and Dimitri have been working in the industry since 1995 and hold pyrotechnic licenses for multiple states and for different types of burns and conditions. Beckie, who always wanted to be a special effects technician, began working on a friend’s crew at 18. Dimitri found his way to the field after 15 years as a veterinary technician who worked on pyrotechnics crews as a hobby—despite early natural talent.
“I was the seven-year-old kid running around with the Raid can and lighter playing flame thrower and melting my army of action figures,” Dimitri laughs. “My parents didn’t think pyrotechnician was a legitimate job. My mom still can’t believe I get paid as much as I get paid to do the things I got in trouble for as a child.”
The pair met in 1998 on a job and married three months later.
“There were fireworks,” says Beckie.
“We always try to work in that line!” laughs Dimitri.
Dimitri’s first Burning Man was in 2000 to serve as the event’s state-mandated licensed pyrotechnican. The following year, the Burning Man organization asked him and Beckie to take over the Man burn, a position they’ve held since.
Back in the default world (as burners call the real world), they run Timohovich Productions in Los Angeles and have worked on The Price Is Right, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, Wrestlemania, the 2002 Olympics, several Superbowls, a Metallica tour, and the New Year’s Eve Millennium event in New York’s Times Square.
“We’re an anomaly in the industry, because we run the gamut from outdoor, live entertainment, rock concerts, amusement parks, to corporate events, to TV and film,” says Dimitri.
The post-burn revelry always continues until the morning, when folks fall sleep or gather around the smoking embers to cook breakfast, keep warm, or look for surviving artifacts to take home as souvenirs.
By then, the exhausted pyro crew has long been asleep.
“We’re not involved in cleanup,” Dimitri grins. “Once the Man falls and burns, we drop the mic and walk away.”