It is without a doubt the most dangerous thing that we do. It's also the art we get asked the most about at the end of the show. What's in your mouth? What does it taste like? Have you ever got hurt?
For as long as I have been fire breathing, there have been accidents in the news about fire breathers across the world hurting themselves or the property they are on. When I was first learning to breathe, I was warned countless times that this could be the fire art that kills me. I took that warning very seriously. I practiced with water for approximately six months before I felt like I was ready to start practicing with oil. The story that scared me the most was Pele's. She landed herself in the hospital in a coma, nearly orphaning her son.
Which answers our first question, What's in your mouth? Let's start with what's NOT in my mouth. White gas or coleman's camp fuel is the most commonly used fuel for fire props. We dip the majority of our wicks in this fuel because it is clean burning with a decent flash point for props held away from your body. Recently, it harder to get a hold of and shelving across the country is stocked with Crown fuel. Both are absolutely not suitable for fire breathing because the flash point is too low (it ignites very easily) and it is combustible, meaning your face could blow up. The flash of Coleman's camp fuel is less than 0° C. Why don't I use alcohol like everclear, is another commonly asked question. Because by the end of my performance, I would have absorbed enough alcohol through the mucous membrane lining of my mouth that I would be falling over drunk. Also, the flash point of most alcohols is so low that I would not be able to perform the sustained fire plumes that I love to do during shows. Because Everclear is a food grade, it's kind of hard to nail down an MSDS for it, but similar proof alcohols used in laboratory settings have a flash point of 18.5°C.
"I heard somewhere that lighter fluid works". That is correct, there are tons of people that were trained in the carnival scene that use lighter fluid. Do I? Nope. It tastes terrible and has a low flash point of 4° C. Seeing the trend? All that chemistry came in handy with understanding fuel types and the safety measures needed to manage a safe yet entertaining show. Lighter fluid works for certain styles of fire breathing and I certainly won't judge my side show friends that still use it in their performances. It just isn't for me.
Alright, so now that I've pointed out all the fuels you shouldn't use, let's talk about what we do use. Ultra Pure Lamp Oil with NO CITRONELLA! The added citronella has been linked to lung damage and no one wants that. I prefer lamplight farms brand. There are others out there but I've noticed they have tastes or I can feel grit in my teeth after using it. I'm pretty picky about the fuel I use because it definitely makes a difference in the resulting performance. It really doesn't have much of a taste. I compare it to olive oil most of the time, but it's a very, very mild taste if anything.
Have I ever hurt myself? Yes. Many times. I have given myself second degree burns on my lips because I didn't pay close enough attention to the direction of the wind. I have set my head on fire resulting in a really terrible hair style and first degree burns on my forehead because I was goofing off with friends at a party and thought it would be funny to show them the new trick I learned (after a beer or two). I've accidentally swallowed some fuel and had the worst fuel burps and eventually diarrhea because of the ingestion. Might be TMI, but let's be real, I don't want everyone going out and trying this because you could end up in the hospital or worse, dead.
Fire breathers take a lot of criticism from the rest of the flow community. I remember getting into a heated discussion with one of the locals here about how breathing fire doesn't take any skill. To which I will argue adamantly that it takes a ton of skill. I occasionally teach fire breathing classes. Not everyone can do it. There is some innate aspects such as dental structure, lip structure, and lung capacity that comes into play. Then there are the learned skills. Aperture, meaning how you hold your mouth when you are breathing. If you mess up the aperture, you risk dribbling flaming fuel down the front of yourself. Pressure, meaning the amount of air you are expelling through the fuel that you are holding in your mouth. Too much pressure and you blow your torch out. Too little and you get no fire burst. Lastly, lung capacity and the ability to control your breath for long periods of time. Breathe over the fuel in your mouth and you risk getting particulates of fuel in your lungs which can result in chemical pnuemonia. Sound fun, right?
Lastly, fire breathing isn't just about making giant pillars of fire, as fun as that may be. For me, fire breathing is about my love and respect for the element that attracts me the most. It's that waltz with something that could easily end my life if anything were to go wrong. There are definitely tricks to learn once you get the basics of fire breathing down. It took me traveling the country and meeting other fire breathers to find out that we can do so much more with our dragon breaths. We can dance with it, change levels, challenge ourselves to see how many bursts we can do with one mouthful of fuel and a brief flame source.
It is the fire art that I will always love the most because it is so much more dangerous that it commands every ounce of respect from me. If you are interested in learning to breathe fire, please sign up for our newsletters. I will be teaching another class this fall.
Photo by Kevin Price