PLEASANTON -- It's for no more than a few seconds, but it feels like a lifetime.

Thomas Rugg is standing 20 feet high above the Alameda County Fair on a high-dive platform. He is dressed in all black, hood over his eyes and donning a gasoline-doused cape that's completely engulfed in fire.

His audience -- as well as passer-bys -- stop in their tracks and gasp with equal parts, terror and delight.

He's a raging, sputtering human bonfire -- a blistering, radiant human pyre of flame.

And in that flash of a moment, he's burning brighter than the nearby Ferris wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls of multicolored lights. That is, before he gracefully nose-dives into the 91/2 foot pool underneath him -- making his way to the water's surface, safe, sound and finally able to catch his breath.

Rugg, 24, is a 2008 graduate of San Ramon Valley High School and a Danville resident who was a star of his freshman dive team and racked up numerous diving awards.

While at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, he was on the dive team for three years and had planned to major in hotel management and business. He said he took one business class, which deathly bored him, and ended up opting to major in geography and art instead.

"Basically I wasn't thinking about my career," he said. "I realized I wanted to do something I was interested in and passionate about."

And on the Hawaii beaches, he picked up a second passion: "spinning fire" as a "fire artist" and "fire performer."


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"Fire is my passion," he said. "And I want to see the world. I'm a traveler at heart."

It was through a teammate on his dive team, he started working more than two years ago for Brown Entertainment, a Florida-based company that does dive and stunt shows all around the world and is currently performing through Sunday at the fair.

Dan Poor, an organizer of the high-dive show for Brown Entertainment, said Rugg is an "amazing" performer. And it really takes a special kind of person to do this type of work day in and day out.

"You have to be a special combination of athlete and showman," he said. "And most of all, you have to have" no fear, he said.

And so when the opportunity to marry his two loves, diving and fire, dropped into his lap, he just had to say yes, he said.

"I like to let the universe make a lot of decisions for me, and it was definitely like, 'Here, try this crazy stunt,' and I was open to it. Someone's gotta do it, after all," he said, shrugging.

And "people love it, and everyone's impressed," he said. "The best compliments I've ever gotten come from lighting myself on fire and jumping off a 80-foot tower," he said, laughing.

And sure, it's risky, death-defying and dangerous to play with fire.

"I've gotten some pretty minor burns and burnt my hair off on pretty regular basis," he said. But a few battle scars and burns are all part and parcel of cultivating an intimate relationship with fire.

"But it's inside of me," he said about his love of fire. "There is something about fire that completely captivates people like me. And they are completely drawn to it. They can't help it."

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/joycetsainews.

IF YOU GO
The Alameda County Fair runs through Sunday from 11 a.m. to midnight at the Alameda County Fairgrounds, at 4501 Pleasanton Ave., Pleasanton.
The high-dive show in the fair's Action Zone is free with fair admission. Shows run on Friday at 4, 7 and 9 p.m.; and weekends at 3:30, 5:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m. The fire dive is during the last show of the day. For ticket information, go to http://www.alamedacountyfair.com/2014fair/index.php.