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Fire breathing is a topic I find myself discussing regularly. Either with performers who do it, new performers who want to learn it, or with clients who wish to book it. Surefire discourages fire breathing and actively looks to encourage clients to book other more interesting fire acts that are also much safer. In this article I hope to give an overview on the dangers of fire breathing, why it is never completely safe, and a quick check list of precautions you should take if you are determined to do it. My information has been sourced from industry professionals, medical professionals, and other online sources. It is by no means complete and I must stress that the safety tips included within do not make fire breathing "safe". I do not advise that anyone fire breaths and disown all responsibility for any damage that might occur as a result of following this advise in any manner.
So you think fire breathing isn't that dangerous?
You're wrong. More than any other fire skill fire breathing has the potential to seriously damage your health. Surefire performer Kris Madden a few years ago suffered a coma and on going chemical pneumonia as a result of fire breathing. I myself once set my hair alight doing the same and was lucky to escape mostly uh-harmed. In both these examples neither myself nor Kris were amateurs or new to fire breathing, both of us had been performing for years with a wealth of fire and safety knowledge under our belts. Neither of us have practiced fire breathing for a long while since. Do not think for a second that because you have been fire breathing for a year and nothing has gone wrong that it can't.
Fire breathing has several potential dangers, both short and long term.
Most fire breathers will be familiar with the nausea that can come from swallowing a bit of paraffin or have slightly singed an eyebrow when they produced a particularly big ball of flame, or a heat burn on the face. Potential consequences you may not be familiar with include:
1) cancer of the throat, lungs, bladder and mouth as some fuels used are carcinogenic – contrary to popular belief paraffin or kerosene is actually not considered carcinogenic, however this was due to insufficient evidence proving that it was – on tests with most lower exposure levels than your average fire breather. Additionally smoke breathed in (like any fire performing) may contribute to long term damage including cancer.
2) Chemical pneumonia - from, among other things, inhaling fuel vapor (if for instance you throw up after ingesting paraffin – seek immediate medical attention if this happens even if you feel fine.)
3) Burns - obviously
4) Diarrhea - not a good look if you've got a run of shows (no pun intended)
5) Stomach Ulcers
6) Dental Corrosion
Why fire breathing is never safe
There are, of course, ways to make fire breathing safer, however it is never truly safe. Here's a short list of reasons why:
1) There is no way to prevent the risk of long term damage - paraffin in the mouth will damage your teeth, the fumes you breath in will damage your lungs.
2) You cannot always account for every factor - when I set my hair alight it was from a freak change in wind direction. I checked the wind direction before breathing, I had already done several breaths in that direction. Either some sort of wind tunnel formed or something - the upshot was my hair went up in flames.
3) It only takes one time. Kris, prior to his accident described above had never had a problem with fire breathing. One bad mix of circumstances lead to life changing damage to one of the most responsible and careful fire performers I work with. Think to yourself, do you always check your clothes are free of paraffin? Do you always wash your mouth out between breaths? Do you ever mistime your breathing just a tiny bit?
What you can do to make fire breathing safer:
As I mentioned above these tips do not make fire breathing safe, it is not. Following this advice can make fire breathing less dangerous - this is by no means a full list of precautions you should take, always consult with a professional before fire breathing and get them to demonstrate in person a safe way in which to do it. Anyone who does not at least mention the potential health risks to you is not fit to teach you, find someone else.
1) If you throw up (for any reason) after fire breathing seek immediate medical attention even if you feel fine.
2) Always ensure you have ample space - 3m minimum from the nearest flammable object.
3) Never breath in severe weather conditions
4) Always breath with your back to the wind
5) Always tie your hair back if long - consider dampening it before hand
6) Wear fire resistant clothing - avoid synthetics. Tight fitting clothes are harder to set alight. Guys might consider doing it topless. Girls might also consider doing it topless.
7) Make sure you do not have lots of fuel on your clothes, especially if doing lots of sets or breathes,
8) Only use a "safe" fuel. You fuel should not have chemicals to reduce odor or change the colour or any of that crap - I would recommend paraffin personally.
9) Have someone around who knows how to put out a fire - it might be you who is on fire.
10) Never fire breath under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
11) Wash your mouth out regularly and un-glamorously spit excess fuel all over the floor - the less of that stuff you swallow the better.
12) Do not do prolonged sessions of fire breathing, you don't need to do a breath every ten seconds, try building up the crowd a bit. Not only do prolonged sessions mean prolonged exposure - they also mean you will start to get sloppy.
13) Do not go out drinking after fire breathing – as mentioned throwing up after ingesting paraffin (which you will do when fire breathing) leads to an increased risk of chemical pneumonia.
P.S. For some other useful advise for performers check out:
For another great source on the dangers of fire breathing check out:
by James Guiver