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A fire festival from the ashes

It's 5 a.m., more than 12 hours before WaterFire's first brazier is set ablaze, and Director of Events and Operations Paul Kochanek — or PK, as the ID card clipped to his belt identifies him — is already on site, beginning the hundreds of man-hours that go into a lighting.

Three hours later, Kochanek is out on Memorial Boulevard, bringing coffee and doughnuts for the volunteers who build the 100 or so fires that dot the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck and Providence rivers downtown.

The simple idea — lighting fires on the waters of downtown Providence — was conceived by artist Barnaby Evans '75 in 1994. Initially intended as a one-time installation, WaterFire was brought back for a second lighting in 1996. The next year, the event expanded to several lightings. Since then it has grown in frequency and size, attracting millions of revelers and boosting Ocean State tourism. An independent non-profit arts organization, WaterFire relies primarily on donors for funding, according to its Web site.

The 2009 season includes a planned total of 17 lightings, each of which is run by 18 paid employees and over 100 volunteers.

"There are a million stories" behind people's decisions to volunteer, Kochanek says.

His own story starts in the late 1990s, when he was planning an expansion of his construction business. But after a meeting with Evans turned into a four-hour conversation, he changed his plans. "The rest is history," he says.

Charged with supervising the set-up and dismantling of the event, Kochanek arrives at 5 a.m. on Saturday and leaves around 4 a.m. on Sunday.

"It's two full-time jobs," says Kochanek, who works 70 to 90 hours a week to ensure that each lighting will run smoothly and to maintain equipment and process paperwork during the offseason.

Boat captain Ihor Slabicky has put his fair share of time into WaterFire as well. "I met Barnaby, and I wanted to get a T-shirt," Slabicky says as he recounts the encounter that kindled more than a decade of dedication to the event. During their conversation all those years ago, Slabicky gave Evans his phone number. The next spring, Evans called Slabicky to offer him the chance to volunteer, and he jumped at the opportunity.

While WaterFire's creator has recruited many volunteers, others seek out the event as another way to contribute to the local community. Tim Messer, an EMS officer and firefighter who has attended WaterFire for several years, is volunteering for the first time by assisting with public safety.

Nitza Garcia was a paid employee of the Woonsquatucket River Watershed Council this summer, but offered to work their WaterFire booth for free on Saturday. To her, the event represents "what the river is used for." And if people in Providence continue to appreciate the value of a clean river, "maybe one day we could swim in it," she says.

For Jane Carlson, participation in WaterFire allows her to be part of the revitalization of the city in which she was born and raised.

Carlson — in her fifth season as a volunteer and third as a boat captain — commands the Aphrodite, a motor boat, up to the braziers in the shadow of the Providence Place Mall. Each boat's name is an homage to the significance of fire and water in classical mythology.

When she graduated high school in 1978, Carlson says, "Providence was a dump."

Like many people who grew up or studied in Providence in the late 1970s, Carlson left — first for New York, then Virginia. When she moved back  home in 2003 to be closer to her parents, she returned to a changed city. In stark contrast to Carlson's memories of the city's crime-ridden downtown, WaterFire was "the most peaceful gathering of thousands of people you'd ever want to see."

Luis Campos '12, of California's Central Valley, is involved with theWaterFire of today as a captain-in-training. Campos attended a couple of lightings as a first-year and started to get involved over the summer when he stayed in Providence for summer research. Sometimes he is allowed to drive the boat, but today he sets up the fire, constructing it with loose newspaper, kindling made from old fence posts, firewood and a long wick of rolled-up newspaper. 

Minutes after Saturday's 6:51 sunset, a trumpet call blares over the speakers hidden along the length of the rivers, signaling WaterFire's opening.

Soon the riverfront is filled with revelers. The crowd consists of young families, the occasional group of college students and couples — more and more of the latter as the night wears on.

As Campos explains, "Earlier on, it's families, then it's people trying to make families."

While some couples consider WaterFire a romantic date, not everybody is happy about that aspect of the event. "They all come down here and make out with their boyfriends," Carlson laments of her 16-year-old daughter's friends.

For one gaggle of first-years, WaterFire serves as a prelude to a night out. Rachel Bloom '13, who hails from Wisconsin, had heard about the event on campus and decided to see what it was all about. One of her companions, Chris Janigian '13 of Woonsocket, is attending his fourth WaterFire. But attending the lighting with friends instead of parents is "much more fun," he said.

Over the years, all sorts of additions have inevitably grown up around WaterFire. Saturday night, canoes and kayaks traverse the length of the fires with glowing fish made of silk attached to the boats to symbolize the city's recent efforts to clean up the river. Lightings also frequently feature jazz shows and ballroom dancing.

At the Maker Faire, another of Saturday night's attractions, an artist from upstate New York shows off a creation he calls a "pentablaster" — a rifle with five barrels spread out like fingers — as two on-duty police officers look on appreciatively.

Despite the vendors and activities that have sprung up as WaterFire has expanded, the fires are still the center of attention. Just after sunset, a toddler watches transfixed, attentive and well-behaved.

At first he sits and stares. Then, without any prompting, he begins to clap. Maybe WaterFire has won over a future captain-in-training.


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