Although breathing implies a two part act of both inhaling and exhaling, fire breathing is a bit of a misnomer in that it’s not meant to describe the actual inhaling of fire! It really should be called fire blowing, with the performer expelling a mouthful of fuel onto a fire source (usually a torch), and allowing the fuel to ignite when sprayed into the air, giving the illusion of an exhalation of fire.
The history of fire breathing is believed to date back to mankind’s first productions of alcohol in ancient Persia, pre-dating even ancient Egypt. Since then, fire breathing has long been used as both a mysterious as well as entertaining art form. Made of two components, fuel and a flame source, fire breathing sounds simple enough. But it is actually a very serious and complicated task that should never be attempted by untrained individuals. Ask any fire performer and they will tell you it is the MOST dangerous of all the fire arts, posing the greatest hazards to the performer, and causing countless burn injuries and even deaths year after year. That’s why we cannot stress this enough, please do not attempt fire breathing on your own.
The first thing a fire breather must do is choose his fuel and his flame source. It’s very important to choose the right fuel as many fuels can be toxic and carcinogenic. Also each fuel has a different flash point, meaning the lowest temperature at which the fuel ignites. For the purposes of fire breathing, fuels with a higher flash point are safer than fuels with a lower flash point, which can ignite more quickly, potentially allowing the flame to spread into the mouth. Breathers take into account several other factors when choosing a fuel including flavor, smell, color of the flame, visibility of the flame, smoke thickness, and amount of smoke.
A very common fuel used is kerosene, mainly because its high flash point makes it one of the safest. Paraffin, also known as lamp oil, is also a commonly preferred fuel source due to its high flash point. Fuels such as naphtha, butane, and propane (all very common lighter fluids) are more dangerous because of their low flash points, as well as for their carcinogenic effects. Alcohols should also be avoided for their toxicity, low flash points, and their ability to cause drunkenness which can inhibit concentration during performing. Ethanol can cause drunkenness simply through absorption, meaning no ingesting is required. This covers the field of spirits, which many drunken idiots like to try to expel and light on fire. Methanol is a bad choice for its high toxicity, which can cause blindness and neurological disorders. Additionally, some performers use corn starch as a fuel source, although accidentally inhaling that into the lungs is very easy and can cause serious infections.
For a flame source, most performers shy away from lighters and matches because they are too small and too close to the body. The most commonly used flame source is a torch, with metal torches being the safest. Binding on torches is very important so no parts will fall off, specifically the wick. Wicks should not be made of wadding, cotton, or rags, as they will burn fairly quickly. Also many wicks in the U.S. are still made of asbestos, so performers need to ensure they are utilizing non-asbestos wicks.
The most difficult part of fire breathing is mastering consistency of spray as well as direction. Fuel must be expelled as a fine mist-like spray in order to ignite properly. If expelled too heavy, a fuel will ignite and simply fall to the ground. If too light, it may be difficult getting the fuel to ignite at all. A fire breather must make sure that the fuel is misted just right to increase fuel surface area, and provide the perfect ratio of fuel, oxygen, and heat to cause combustion.
The ideal direction of expelled fuel should be at an angle of 60 to 80 degrees. Too low and the fire can hit body parts. Too high and it can fall back into the face. When expelled fairly horizontally, fire breathing often resembles a fireball. More vertical projections create pillars or plumes of flames. Many breathers have a varied bag of tricks they can perform, but one of the most common is the dragon’s breath, which involves a sustained vertical fire breath without a torch held in front of the flames.
Some of the most notable fire breathing records set have occurred fairly recently. The highest flame ever recorded belongs to Antonio Restive, an American who blew a 26 ft 5 in pillar of fire in a Las Vegas warehouse on January 11, 2011. The award for most flames blown in one minute goes to Preacher Muad’dib, who blew 85 flames while on an Italian TV program on April 27, 2011. Lastly, undoubtedly one of the strangest fire breathing records set, the most flames passed occurred at Burning Man in August of 2007, in which a single fire breath was passed along to 21 other breathers.
Since fire breathing is one of the most dangerous arts of the circus, safety is of the utmost importance. Breathers should always have trained individuals nearby who will be capable using a fire extinguisher, damp towel, and fire blanket to put out tools or people ablaze should a situation arise. Breathers also need to be very careful of their surroundings, especially if they are performing outdoors, as changes in wind direction could cause a flame to go back into the performers face, an occurrence known as blowback. For this fact breathers should only expel downwind, or perform indoors whenever possible. They also need to be aware of anything combustible around them including materials, fabrics, trees, plants, and of course people. Furthermore, performers should always tie long hair back, and refrain from wearing perfumes, hairsprays, spray deodorant, or any other aerosol products.
In regards to clothing, 100% cotton is used by most breathers, whereas polyester and other synthetics are avoided for they can easily melt. Flame-resistant treated cotton is great for performers using highly combustible fuels. Generally speaking though, the less clothes worn the better. That’s why many performers breathe topless or in minimal clothing. Plus…it looks really hot!
Fire breathing comes with its own set of risks, dangers, and effects, ranging from minimal to fatal. Among the more trivial effects is dry mouth or cotton mouth, which is caused by extended periods of fuel being held in the mouth. This can be prevented by drinking plenty of water beforehand. Dry or red skin is also common, caused by allergic irritations to fuel, or close proximity of skin to the fire, causing mild burn effects. Due to the fact that facial hairs are often singed off, many performers try to maintain a clean-shaven appearance.
Some more serious effects include stomach ache or nausea caused by accidental ingestion of fuel, or trace amounts of fuel spilling down the esophagus through the saliva of the mouth. This can be avoided by ingesting a myriad of supplements beforehand including: antacids, charcoal tablets, milk or cream, or starches like bread or potatoes (which help soak up fuel and let it pass from system). Headaches, dizziness, and other drunk effects are also common from ingesting fuel, and should be treated with the same methods of treating dehydration: consuming plenty of water and electrolytes. Finally dry coughs from smoke or fuel mist inhalation are frequent as well, but should subside by taking extended breaks from performing.
The gravest effects of fire breathing are cancers of the mouth, lungs, throat, kidneys, or even liver. Prolonged containment of certain fuels in the mouth can also cause gum disease or weakened enamel. Stomach ulcers are a typical occurrence, as well as fuel poisoning, which similar to other types of poisoning, results in diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, stomach pains, shaking, sweating, and blurred vision. Lastly, the biggest and most apparent danger is burns, with blowbacks into the face and other body parts a very commonplace occurrence, and gravity of burns ranging from minor 1st degrees to more serious 2nd and 3rd degrees, or even death.
Even if you’re able to escape all of the above, there’s one more serious danger of fire breathing sure to deter you from ever joining the sport: acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), also known as fire breather’s lung. ARDS is chronic inflammation of lung parenchyma, impairing proper gas exchange. When fuel is inhaled, it can get stuck in the alveoli of the lungs, which are tiny air sacs where oxygen exchange occurs. If that happens, the body believes the fuel is an invader just like any virus, and the immune reactions kick in. White-blood-cell-filled plasma fills up the alveoli to attack the fuel, causing the alveoli to fill up with liquid, inhibiting them from oxygenating the blood. At this point the patient has full-blown chemical pneumonia, also known as fire breather’s pneumonia.
Unfortunately there is no cure for ARDS and half of all patients die. Even a very small amount of inhaled fuel can cause ARDS, especially with hydrocarbon fuels such gasoline and kerosene. Treatment usually involves increasing the pressure of oxygen in the lungs by intubation, wherein the patient is attached to a breathing machine. At that point the only thing to do is wait for the situation to resolve itself. If survived, many patients will suffer extensive, severe, and permanent damage to the lungs, allowing them to never breathe normally again. Some may need home oxygen for the remainder of their lives.
Similar to ARDS, inhaling paraffin can cause lipid pneumonia, wherein the oil coats pulmonary tissues impeding proper oxygen absorption and expelling of carbon dioxide.