Burning Man safety chief is none other than Gabe Kearney, Petaluma councilman
By Chris Smith | Sep 2, 2016

There are legions of “Burners” from Sonoma County and the North Bay. Gabe Kearney is one of the relatively few professionals.

“This is year 11 for me,” the affable, 34-year-old Petaluman said from the opulence of an air-conditioned office/home created within a shipping container. Most everyone at Burning Man this week lives in a tent, RV or yurt by now coated liberally with pale gray dust.

Kearney’s civilized digs come with his job as the eight-day festival of art and human potential’s safety officer. He’s paid by the Burning Man organization to make sure the many large, oftentimes climbable pieces of art, the temporary city’s other structures and the operations at the airstrip are all safe.

The safety operation run by him and 20 volunteers also licenses drones.

Kearney said his team works to strike the safety enforcement balance that allows nearly 70,000 Burning Man participants to enjoy the free-spirited experiential gathering in the high desert northeast of Reno, and to go home in one piece.

It’s a seasonal, alternate-reality gig for this former Sonoma County radio broadcaster and medical technician and current real estate agent and member of the Petaluma City Council. He acquired the skill set necessary for the Burning Man job as a medic at large, public events, and as emergency room tech and then safety inspector with Kaiser Permanente in Sonoma and Marin counties.

In 2001, he heard that Burning Man needed medical techs, and he applied. He remembers driving into Black Rock City, a funk and fantastic metropolis erected on a long-parched lake bed, in his Nissan packed with simple necessities such as a tent and a single cooler of food and drink.

“I was welcomed by an amazing group of people,” he recalled. He was astonished and charmed by how other emergency services volunteers greeted and accepted him, filled him in on how Burning Man is laid out and how it works, and opened up about their experiences and their lives.

“That’s what got me hooked,” Kearney said. “You meet all these people and you hear all these stories of what brought them here, and their backgrounds.”

He worked his way up from a volunteer medical tech to the safety chief. By now he has talked to vast numbers of people who go to Burning Man and are generally awed by how it grows from nothing to the fifth-largest city in Nevada, and to people who haven’t gone and who draw impressions from media accounts and lore.

“People talk about drugs and nudity. That’s such a small minority of what this event is,” he said. “I think many people don’t appreciate the art that is here.”

Beyond the world-class sculptures that dot the playa — what the ground beneath the city-for-a-week is called — there are fanciful to fantastic art cars, decorated bicycles, costumes and innumerable musical and street-theater performances.

“And every year,” Kearney said, “people somehow outdo themselves.”

That a city council member trucks off each August, when the panel is on summer schedule, to work at a legendarily dusty and dry and outlandish temporary city, surprises some constituents. But not those who go, too.

Gabe Kearney, on the playa at Burning Man (Chris Smith/The Press Democrat)