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In wake of opera accident, fire-breathing experts say fuel type makes difference

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 9:41 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHICAGO — There’s no hidden artifice in the art of fire-breathing: Professional performers (and, let us be explicit, don’t try this at home or for fun) take a shot’s worth of fuel inside their mouths, then blow out the liquid toward an open flame. The trick is to not get burned.

“There is no completely safe way to do it, but there are habits to mitigate the risk,” said Brian Brushwood, an Austin, Texas-based performer who authored “The Professional’s Guide to Fire Eating.”

The type of fuel used determines the brightness and intensity of the flame. Mark Faje, a Chicago stunt comic who was a semifinalist on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” said it’s the reason many performers prefer the brighter flame produced by fuels such as lighter fluid or camp fuel, as opposed to the dimmer one produced by a slower-burning fuel like kerosene.

Without direct knowledge of the accident Monday at Lyric Opera, Todd Robbins, the founder of the Coney Island Sideshow School and a fire-eating instructor in New York, said most incidents occur because the wrong fuel is used. Robbins decried the use of certain fuels that are nonetheless popular among fire-breathers. “You never, never, never spit out Coleman (camp fuel) or lighter fluid or Bacardi 151,” Robbins said. “You run the risk of residue left on your face and in the mouth, which can combust.”

There’s no “safer” flame with these stunts — the temperatures involved in fire-breathing range from 1,500 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Robbins and Brushwood said performers can decrease risk by using a fuel with a higher flash point, such as a paraffin-based lamp oil, which won’t ignite as easily in its vaporized state.

Once the fuel is in the mouth, the idea is to create as “fine and even of a mist as possible so you create a vapor cloud of volatile gases,” Brushwood said.

At that point, any number of dangers could crop up — a breeze, if the performance is outdoors, or if the mist is not fine enough, droplets of fuel that dribble down the chin and ignite. At the Lyric, the performer’s mask caught on fire.

Yet another issue associated with fire-breathing is perhaps the most obvious one: putting gasoline or lighter fluid in your mouth. Faje, who goes by the moniker “World’s Most Dangerous Comic,” stopped performing fire stunts regularly five years ago, after having done so for 20 years.

“I had a friend who just died of cancer,” he said, “and I suspect that it was the toxicity of fire-eating contributed to it.”

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