How Fire Breathing Works

Dangers and Safety

When talking about fire breathing, most performers acknowledge the dangers and emphasize the steps they take to minimize them. Many decline to teach others to fire breathe because of the risks involved. "I discourage people from trying it every chance I get," says Pele.

Burns are the most obvious fire breathing danger. Performers can influence the direction of a fire, but they cannot actually control it. Shifting wind or other conditions can cause a flame to get out of control, burning the fire breather, the audience or property. Another burn hazard is blowback, which is when the flame follows the fuel back to the performer's mouth.

Fire breathers also risk several other immediate and long-term health effects, including:

  • Skin irritation
  • Dry mouth
  • Gum disease
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Poisoning
  • Chemical pneumonia or acute respiratory distress

Since fuels can contain carcinogens, fire breathers may be at a higher risk for several cancers.

To minimize the inherent dangers of fire breathing, performers take extensive safety precautions. Pele explains:

My first course of action is that I have a trained "safety." I train someone I trust (who actually wants the job) in use of a fire extinguisher, how to use a damp towel [and] a fire blanket, and we work intensively on making sure he or she can effectively extinguish all tools. And then he or she works with me on if I catch fire and how to extinguish me. And then we train on extinguishing the area should it catch fire.

Pele inspects her equipment and her costume before every performance. She checks the content of her first aid kit and inspects the area where her performance will take place. She maintains liability insurance and works in conjunction with the local authorities: "We contact the local fire marshal to make sure we have permission...and I submit a burn plan."

Performers make sure to remove excess fuel from their faces and hands after they breathe fire. They also try to minimize the effect of fuel on their bodies. "The best thing to do is to drink milk or take an antacid before performing...and then eating some bread or anything that's going to soak up the fuel...and help it pass out of your system," says Garner.

"Home of Poi" has several detailed articles about fire safety and fire breathing safety. In addition, the North American Fire Artists Association and the National Fire Protection Association maintain comprehensive guidelines for fire performance safety. These provide helpful standards for performers, but Pele cautions that they are not universally accepted. "Every township has their own laws we have to work within, and there is no blanket catch-all standard."