How Fire Breathing Works

Torches and Fuel

A fire breather
A fire breather

The choice of fuel is just as important as a fire breather's technique. Fire breathers consider several factors when choosing a fuel, including:

  • Flash point (whether the fuel ignites at a high or low temperature)
  • Toxicity
  • Taste and smell
  • Color and visibility of flame
  • Amount and thickness of smoke

The most commonly used fuel is kerosene, also known as paraffin outside of the United States. Lamp oil is chemically similar to kerosene and is also a common choice. These fuels have a high flash point, making them somewhat safer, but tend to be smoky and produce a noticeable smell. Neither is safe for ingestion, and both can contain toxic additives.

Some performers use naphtha, also known as white gas, Coleman fuel or lighter fluid, for some fire stunts. However, naphtha has a low flash point, making it more volatile and more likely to burn the performer. It is also toxic. Most performers consider it to be a more dangerous fuel choice for fire breathing.

Fire performers stay away from some fuels entirely. "I avoid all alcohols and all costs," says Pele. "They should never be used in any fire effects...methyl alcohol is extremely toxic, and ethyl alcohol allows drunkenness, which should never be combined with fire work. Both [alcohols] also have extremely low flashpoints, which make them very dangerous to work with."

Fire breathers typically use a torch, which they either make or purchase, to ignite their fuel. Smaller items, like matches, keep the performer's hand dangerously close to the flame. Lighters are dangerous for the same reason, and because they can explode in the fire breather's hand.

But directing fuel from the mouth through a flame is the smallest component of a fire breather's performance. Protecting the performer and audience is an even greater undertaking. In the next section, we'll examine the dangers of fire breathing and the steps performers take to minimize the risks.