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Essay

A volunteer generates sparks in a city’s civic ritual

By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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PROVIDENCE - As a volunteer fire tender at WaterFire Providence, I know how Prometheus felt. And I never had to steal anything.

I am in a black boat named after the mythological Greek god who first brought fire to mankind after swiping an ember from Zeus, who apparently was big on keeping humanity in the dark.

The people loved Prometheus for it and ancient Athens honored him with a footrace of torchbearers. As we cruise slowly up the ink-black Providence River at sunset on a balmy spring night in the heart of the capital city, thousands of people on the banks are loving us as well. They know it is our job to set fire to the more than 80 braziers of wood dotting the river center.

With our Prometheus filled with wood and six volunteers, we cruise in a procession of six fire-lighting boats. The onlookers wave and clap, knowing that in moments, we will set fiery torch to dry wood, illuminating the river - and them. It is a lofty responsibility, one that volunteers do not take lightly.

“It’s interesting to see the people’s reaction,’’ says Barnaby Evans, the conceptual artist who created the award-winning WaterFire in 1994.

And it’s just plain fun.

“It’s really cool to see the people waiting and their reaction when the fires are lit,’’ says Lucas Kolasa, a volunteer who figures this is his 80th installation. “They applaud and wave, and really seem to appreciate it.’’

The event can draw tens of thousands of people a night in a season when 14 or more installations are held, spring to fall. And it wouldn’t be possible without the help of upward of 100 volunteers, many of whom have been a part of the event since it began, says Allison Montagnon, volunteer coordinator.

In addition to being black-clad fire tenders (wearing all black is mandatory, to blend in with the black boats, the inky river, and the night), volunteers make sure each of the six fire-lighting boats, all named for Greek mythological figures, are loaded with about a cord and a half of scrap pine logs. They also work at the booths lining the streets above, set up reception areas and places for special performances, and just mingle with visitors. Still others clean up until the wee hours.

The volunteer captain of my boat is Christine Maino, who enjoys a dubious claim to fame in that years ago, she stepped off the boat one night, slipped on the gunnel, and fell into the water. Such things happen when moving about in the dark, Montagnon says, adding that now, when someone falls in, it is dubbed a “full Maino.’’

It might seem that volunteers are just there to save the nonprofit WaterFire money, but that isn’t the case, says Evans. “I could hire people to do it but that’s not our intention,’’ he says. “Our intention is to build a civic ritual with spiritual resonance.’’

To that effect, haunting music is piped along the river channel, music chosen by Evans but suggested by those attending, another part of drawing the public to what he calls a transformative event.

“It’s a statement of transforming community,’’ he says. “The whole idea of volunteerism is it’s the most effective way to transform a city into a place that’s working.’’

Until midnight, fire tenders cruise the river, restocking and relighting the braziers, and bathing onlookers in the warm glow.

“They step forward on stage and reenact the process of community engagement, as a process of transforming the city with this sea of fire,’’ Evans says. ’’They make a contribution to the night, the community, the city, as the sputtering fire bursts into flame and brings with it joy and light.’’

For information and schedule visit www.waterfire.org.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at kandarian@globe.com.