OB Burners and Hoopers Get Busted

by on July 1, 2009 · 42 comments

in Media, Ocean Beach

A young man spins unlit fire chains by himself, in the middle of Collier Park at Soto & Greene.  His phone rings, a tinny sound from his pocket.  He pauses to answer it, tucks it between his shoulder and his ear, and continues to spin while he talks.  The spinning is almost an afterthought, his body dancing slowly, almost like tai chi, but with whizzing metal balls on chains involved.

Slowly a troupe forms, ten people or so, mostly men and mostly young-looking, in their 20’s and 30’s.  They lounge on the grass at first, then as more people begin to show up with more gear – long poles of PVC piping, tennis balls shoved into knee-high pantyhose, hula-hoops, and other practice materials – the people on the ground begin to rise, and to spin.

This group meets every Monday at 6p.m., organized and led by Chris Harrison.  By day, Harrison is a computer programmer at UCSD.  By night, his occupation and persona changes – he is known as Taz, and he spins fire.  He runs the Monday flow class for all levels, and fire is not involved.  It’s a practice session, so relaxed that I even join in, giving myself a couple good whacks in the head and shins before finally nailing down a solid turn.  It’s harder than it looks.

But I am here not because fire spinning looks cool, although it does, I am here because fire activities have become controversial lately.  OB is a community rich in burners, known as such because a number of them perform at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, as the San Diego Fire Conclave.

Dog beach, after dark, has served as a practice spot for these serious and involved burners for the past 2-3 years.  These burners and hoopers (dancers with flaming hula hoops, essentially) have practiced without incident until recently.

On June 4, 2009, four women with hula-hoops all received tickets and fines from an Officer R. Schultz.  The women in question are professionals, and were practicing for an upcoming event.  Their hula-hoops were on fire, and they had two safety people ready at either end of the practice.  They were each given a ticket for “uncontrolled fire, fire-throwing, or walking on fire”.

“Yeah,” said one of the various guys sending chains whipping effortlessly over his head, “I heard about that.  I was surprised; nobody’s ever gotten busted at the beach.  I got busted a couple years ago, but that was in a park.”

Charles Shaw and Scott Wakeham show up soon after and seek me out.  Wakeham runs the San Diego Fire Conclave, and Shaw is somewhat spearheading the movement to fight the tickets.  Neither received tickets on June 4th, but both were present a week earlier, on a Friday, when the same Officer Schultz came down to dog beach and told them to stop spinning fire.

“People have been spinning on that beach for at least three years, longer if you count individuals and smaller groups,” says Wakeham, “We’ve even had police officers come and be very explicit – you can spin fire on this side of the beach, but not this side.  Go over by the firepit, not past the berm.  So we practice by the firepit.”
But on this particular night, Officer Schultz decided to overrule those earlier officers and close down the practice session completely.  Wakeham and Shaw claim that Schultz told them that he didn’t really know if there were any codes against it, but he would check into it.  Two hours later, Schultz returned and said that he did know of a rule that fires on the beach had to be out by midnight, so they had to leave.

“That was nothing we’d ever heard about before,” Shaw exclaims, “this guy was greener than the grass we’re standing on.”

The grass is most definitely green, and Shaw and Wakeham argue that Schultz and his sergeant are both new to town, with no real awareness of the history and safety of the fire spinners and hoop dancers at the beach.
A week later, The Hoop Unit, a separate group from the SD Fire Conclave, were practicing on the beach, led by local hooper and burner Valentina Martin, known as Unity. Officer Schultz returned to this different group and claimed that his sergeant wanted him to shut it down.  The group assured him that they were professionals, and they had two safety people with fire blankets, prepared to put out all 4 hoops in less than a minute.  Schultz was adamant, and according to Shaw declared his own thoughts, saying, “I think that this is a public hazard.”

“The cop was angry, he didn’t even ask us anything,” says Allison Walkey, one of the women who received a ticket, “He said he’d warned us already, but those were completely different people.  Maybe he should keep a record of who he’s warned.”

The four women who were ticketed were running the choreography for an upcoming event – something that became almost impossible to do when their safe practice space was taken away.  As Wakeham points out, there are very few places in Southern California where it is safe to spin or hoop with fire, and the beach is one.

Now the four women ticketed are facing fines of $625 each – a $2,500 expense for the group.  The money that they make performing isn’t even enough to be taxable.  Most of the women are San Diego residents, and have been practicing here for years.  Walkey argues that the claim of the ticket – that they had uncontrolled fire, were throwing or walking on fire – has nothing to do with them.  Their fires were controlled, and they were neither throwing fire nor walking on fire.

“Also, people love it,” she says, and Shaw echoes this sentiment, saying, “If the city would work with us and not against us, this could be mutually beneficial.  Tourists love us.  Have you seen people watching fire spin?  They’re mesmerized.”

The San Diego burner community is actively supporting Allison Walkey, Aesha Shapiro, Heidi Estevez, and Sarah Edgar, the ticketed hoopers in question.  The group plans to take the tickets to court, and will be raising money to do so.  Proceeds from the Funk the System party on July 3 will go towards the tickets.  There will also be another fundraiser on July 24th.  Details are to be announced – you can most likely find them at www.unityhoops.com, myspace.com/UnityValentina, or email Unity directly at unitydances@gmail.com.  “I have a lot of money to raise!” says Unity.

youtube video of hooping is available at www.youtube.com/user/UnityTheGypsyQueen.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

mr fresh July 1, 2009 at 8:19 am

another superior story from what’s getting to be the best damn lil’ community blog anywhere. keep up the great work, OBRag.


jon July 1, 2009 at 8:38 am

If the cops are that bored, they could always take a walk down the cliffs and bust the taggers who are actively damaging public property rather than harass these peaceful revelers who are only bringing smiles to peoples faces. Or they could bust the tweakers that are breaking into peoples cars, or they could bust the angry drunk from El Cajon that is trying to pick fights at the local bar.

I know a few of these fire spinners and have gone to the beach to watch them for years. NEVER has there been a problem with that scene. Peaceful and fun. We are becoming Ban Diego.

Thanks for bringing this story to “light” (no pun intended) Mary. Please keep us updated. I would be glad to help in any way I can.


Frank Gormlie July 1, 2009 at 9:02 am

New chant for Farmers Market: ‘Bust the taggers not the burners!’


Niveque Storm July 1, 2009 at 9:36 am

It would be one thing if they were drunks or it was a party where accidents might happen. I take that back, I would still allow this activity even then. What about personal responsibility? Are the cops going to start patrolling around stopping people from climbing trees because someone might get hurt? If people want to play with a little fire on the beach where clearly no buildings can be involved, how is that different from making a fire at the beach and whatever danger that poses? Why is fire walking banned? I think someone should hang around their (the police officers) houses waiting to see if they put too much fuel on their barbecue and if they are drunk while doing it. Why is it the job of the police to protect us from getting burned? The job of the police is to protect you from other people trying to burn you, and clearly these performers, with their “fire safeties” are not trying hurt anyone. I think that people need to write in letters to the superiors of those officers and get them them re-focused on more salient issues, such as violent crime and theft that trouble our communities instead of ones that entertain us and give us culture.


Shawn Conrad July 1, 2009 at 9:48 am

I support hippies surrounded in flames.


Jan July 1, 2009 at 10:29 am

I am a fire perfromer in Houston Texas. Back at the start of the year we did a private fire show. The show went great and we thought everthing was cool. Five days after the gig, Houston fire marshal called me and demanded that the persons in charge of this fire show be at his office by 10 AM the next morning. He had photos of our troupe performing and that was evidence. He told me I have to face the fine since I didn’t pull a permit. He told me either show in the morning or I would have a warrant for my arrest. I showed along with my partner and he lectured us for 2 hours then gave us a HUGE fine of $1000.00. The city of Houston certainly got the $1000.00 permit fee after the fact! In the city of Houston you can’t have so much as a tiki torch or a fire pit without a permit! The permit is for one event for 4 hours at $1000.00. We can’t even legally practice with fire in of own yard without a permit! Most of the fire performers in town just do it and never pull a permit and never get busted. We did the same for years then got busted. They just will not understand that we are professionals and this isn’t our first rodeo. At the same time if they want a permit pulled, then lower the the fees and they will make more money off of us. We would then be able to afford the permit fee and have the venue cover it along with performer and safety fees. This is how it works in Houston..a photo can get you busted days later.


raven July 1, 2009 at 10:50 am

so sad to see the authoritys taking there “authority” to the extreme…again. i’ve always thought that the OB cops are actually much more lenient in OB than anywhere else in the city….(from my own experience)….but lately, it seems like san diego just wants to strip away everything involved with the local beaches. look out, there is going to be a fee to park in the lot soon, that’s coming next.

BTW…awesome little paper going on here!!


Mary E. Mann July 1, 2009 at 11:57 am

Thanks guys, I appreciate your comments!
This is a really great group of people, and they would appreciate any help and guidance you can offer. Feel free to email Unity, unitydances@gmail.com, if you’d like to get involved. Or, if you’d just like to learn some moves :)


brian July 1, 2009 at 11:13 am

first of all if you’re gonna let one person do it, you have to let everybody do it. second, it is hazardous as shit if you don’t know what you’re doing and the cops certainly don’t have to experience w/ fire spinning to know who can do it “safely” and who cannot. not to mention if some hippie lights themselves on fire it’s taxing on our emergency services. it’s bad enough that they’re always dealing w/ drunks. if people want to spin fire in public places and not be harassed then the only real answer is to set up a certification program. instead of bitching and ridiculously claiming that this activity is safe, maybe some of these people could get organized, open a dialogue w/ the city and actually do something.

as far as the graffiti, how about giving the kids somewhere to paint instead of just shit talking them.


Dave Sparling July 1, 2009 at 11:15 am

Would some intelligent human please protect this old atheist from those crazy people in authority who claim they need to protect me.


Anthony Power July 1, 2009 at 11:26 am

Alot of these people are my friends and it saddens me to see something like this happen, … I know there are some talks about putting together more benefit’s to help them raise the money to pay these tickets.

I really hope they don’t let this slide, … this is ridiculous, what these people do is beautiful, and they practice the utmost safety. I would love to see the city drop these tickets and give them a designated place to practice.

Anthony “ApHtEr” Power


lane tobias July 1, 2009 at 11:51 am

i agree, the police should redirect their attention to more pressing matters. im sure there are plenty of people in OB they can go after who are endangering people around them, rather than entertainers practicing their craft.

great job mary.


ClubStyle_DJ July 1, 2009 at 12:28 pm

You guys are lucky you didn’t get SHOT and breathlized.
I watched Judge Dredd the other day and he and his Brethren live in
“Ban Diego”(and I love the new moniker)

For those who don’t know:
Dredd is a law enforcement officer in a violent city of the future where uniformed Judges combine the powers of police, judge, jury and executioner. Dredd and his fellow Judges are empowered to arrest, sentence and even execute criminals on the spot.


jon July 1, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Clubstyledj – is that, shoot first, breathalize later? lol.

I sent the firespinners an email and asked me to include them on their list. I will write letters of support or anything else they need to help their cause. They are being harassed. Plain and simple. The cops are too lazy to fight crime any more. I guarantee that while the cops were writing these girls tickets, someone was getting their car broken into a block away, or some local business was being vandalized.


Wireless Mike July 1, 2009 at 1:33 pm

The police should know the laws they are enforcing as well as the values and traditions of the community they are patrolling, and apply a little common sense.


annagrace July 1, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Great story! Terrific photos. Are these local scenes at the beach?


OBserver July 1, 2009 at 2:31 pm

It sounds to me like the City of San Diego is looking for more ways to generate revenue, either through fines or through the cost of permits. But the manner in which they are going about it reminds me of when we had Police Chief Hoobler harassing the good people of Ocean Beach back in the early ‘70’s.

The ironic thing is that this Officer Schultz (Really? Like the bumbling Nazi in Hogan’s Heroes?) will probably soon be gone to the next police force that offers him better pay and/or benefits and we’ll have more green cops that don’t know how to deal effectively with the community they are essentially paid to protect and serve.

Someone better call Turko because IT AIN’T RIGHT!!!


doug porter July 1, 2009 at 2:51 pm

as the stats guy around here i have to say i’m blown away at the number of people coming from all over the country to view this story. (waves) hi everybody, welcome to the OB Rag!


OB Rag Fan July 1, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Great Job Mary!!! Another fine piece…

Contact your Councilmember on this one. This is typical of these times… The City is hurting, so dip into the couches for pocket change. In this case, artists in OB are getting hassled for spreading the hot, bright love. If Faulconer appreciates OB for what he values it as; the “small community that celebrates individuality and creativity,” he will put a stop to this un-provoked harassment of OB’s character.



Scott s July 1, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Has anyone looked into hawaii laws on fire performance? I know it’s a different world but maybe they have something that could be used as presadence or at least ground work for reasonable controls.


ty July 1, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Thank all you people sooo much for the support! I’m proud to call O.B. home.


Abby July 1, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Very nice article! This is a great group of people who don’t deserve to be harassed.

Thank god the cops are out there protecting us from dancing, fun and beer.!


PSD July 1, 2009 at 9:17 pm

I don’t know any of these folks by name, but I wouldn’t doubt at least a few of them are members of the groups I’ve mentioned stopping to watch and compliment on earlier blogs. I’ve long viewed their practices as impromptu performances and have had a blast taking a few moments out of my evening to stop, watch, and give a token wave or word of appreciation.

Lame on porky for bringing you down. I’d offer tips on seclusion and safety from cops, but exposing a good spot would thus burn it for future use. Aplologies in advance if you see a lame pun in that statement…


BillRayDrums July 1, 2009 at 10:02 pm

I hope the fire dancers stay. Their art is amazing, we in the community should start a petition for their right to perform. Our community is the most unique in San Diego, and we should be allowed to have that kind of stuff go on.


briank July 2, 2009 at 3:48 am

I’m siding with the fire spinners on this one… This looks like a pathetic attempt to garner more money for financially depressed governments–fine whoever you can. Ridiculous. What ever happened to common sense?


Gary Gilmore July 2, 2009 at 7:55 am

Anyone or any group that is so talented and so exotic is a welcome addition to Ocean Beach. This is what our community is about. I get the feeling that it is possible to make the difficulties go away with some quiet diplomacy behind the scenes. Whatever you do, DO NOT STOP. You are an asset. Please persevere. You will succeed and, the exposure you get from this will be to your advantage.
Hey! By the way… Mary, nicely done.


Mary July 2, 2009 at 10:59 am

Thank you all so much for your kind words and support for the burner community and the article. I am proud to be part of such a caring community. Again, do not hesitate to contact the burners if you have any advice, especially legal advice, or have practice space to offer – they need it, and it’s a great show for you!


Unity (Valentina) July 2, 2009 at 11:48 am

Hey guys! Thank you for all of your support and encouragement, I agree! If any of you would like to come to our fundraiser tomorrow, please email or call me (unitydances@gmail.com & 858-344-2774). If you can’t come to the party but would like to help, make small donations to vmartin23@gmail.com through paypal. Thank you again =)


John July 2, 2009 at 12:41 pm

I would like to say thanks to everyone for their support of the fire spinner community in san diego and thanks for mary for writing this fantastic article. To reiterate what Unity said, Please come out tomorrow for the fundraiser. Its going to be awesome. Fire and music always make for a good evening. Peace!


Gary Gilmore July 2, 2009 at 4:06 pm

Valentina, Give us the time and place please.


jim g July 2, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Just curious do the fire dancers/spinners that preform at The Cataraman and The Knoa Kai have permits ???


Patty Jones July 2, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Hey Mary, I just wanted to say how much I enjoy the style of your writing and to tell you how very glad I am that you are part of the OB Rag!


BillRayDrums July 3, 2009 at 11:11 am

I created a petition online. Hopefully we can gather 1000 signatures and submit this to the city attorney, It’s just silly that with all the other problems that our community faces (graffiti, vandalism, theft) the police choose to strike out at those who are applying themselves to an art.


Let’s get 1000 sigs. More if possible.

And I apologize for the unauthorized use of the pic. I hope no one sues me! :D I figured the pic of a beautiful dancer would lure more signatures.


Unity (Valentina) July 3, 2009 at 1:19 pm

Email or call me for info on the location tonight! 858-344-2774 or unitydances@gmail.com


Sasquatch July 3, 2009 at 7:30 pm

This Officer Schultz ticketed me for smoking on the cliffs. $250. The funny thing was his attitude, this little man who hadn’t drawn his first breathe before I took my first drag. I asked him if he thought I was a threat the way he stayed at the foot of the little knob I was up on and he said, “I’m hiding from those other smokers up there (farther down the cliffs).” Then he grinned this sick conspiratorial grin and said,”Don’t you want them to get a ticket too? It’s only fair.”

I told him no, that it was a stupid PC law based on bad (Horrible) science and nannyism and that we already had littering statutes to cover that real concern. No penetration. Oh well. Now he’s whacking my fire performer friends and yes, I DO know their names : ).


Hefln July 4, 2009 at 11:39 pm

There was a huge amount of uncontrolled fire in San Diego on the evening of 4 July.

Is there a PayPal or bank account we all can send a few dollars to help, especially if it is a charity?


BillRayDrums July 5, 2009 at 9:15 am


In case anyone missed it. We are a little over 10% of the 1000 signatures. See if we can reach 1k . I don’t know if this will help at all, but it’s worth a shot.


Mary July 5, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Regarding PayPal:

Yes there is a Paypal account! It’s mentioned earlier in this stream of comments, and it’s through Unity – donations can go to vmartin23@gmail.com through paypal.



Ryan July 5, 2009 at 4:27 pm

I saw you guys perform at an event in eastern SD county recently and you girls were AWESOME!!! Fight this. Can you post the actual code number that they cited you under? I have personally received tickets from cops for stuff that was not even covered under the law that was cited on the ticket I received. Case dismissed. Especially if you win, file complaints about this officer for being malicious. Make sure you CC not only the Chief of Police, but also the mayor’s office and all city council members. We should be embracing art, not fighting its public display.


Ryan July 5, 2009 at 4:38 pm

My curiosity got the best of me and I decided to look at the municipal code real quick. If he cited you in violation of 63.0102 section B 11, the text reads as follows: “Fires. It is unlawful to kindle or allow to be kindled any fire or bonfire, or throw upon the ground a lighted match, lighted cigar or cigarette, or anything that would be liable to set fire to any grass, tree, shrub, building, or other property; provided, however, that nothing in section 63.0102(b)(11) prohibits persons from kindling fires in stoves, ovens, or similar facilities provided by the Park and Recreation Department.” That section covers regulations that apply to Parks and Beaches.

If that was the law cited then the other officers were correct and what you did was 100% legal. This law requires that your fire be “liable to set fire to any grass, tree, shrub, building, or other property.” If that was the law that was cited, fight it and push the city council or police department to order retraining and education for the officer. Because clearly, he is ignorant of what the law says.


John Schultz July 16, 2009 at 7:39 am

If you want to reaaaaaaaly see fire come to Burningman…..my Lazy Daze is gassed up and I will be going to my eighth burn in less than a month….I have pics from past years if readers would like to see some!


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