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A fire breather is a stunt performer who creates the illusion of exhaling fire from his mouth by blowing a mist of combustible fuel over an open flame, usually located at the end of a hand-held torch. Though fire breathing has sometimes been a component of Hindu spiritual ceremonies, since the late 19th century it has become a popular feature of Western events like circuses and alternative music festivals. Fire breathing displays can be visually impressive, but their use of flame and fuel can make them extremely dangerous; thus the performer should be well-rehearsed and take all possible safety precautions to protect himself and his audience.
Before performing his stunt, a fire breather needs two basic items: a torch and fuel. Torch size, shape, and material can vary based on the performer’s preferences and level of experience. Some breathers begin with a torch made from a reshaped wire coat hanger with a wick of pure cotton material affixed to its top. Again, wick size will be adjusted to suit the breather’s needs and preferences, but it should be noted that a larger wick will result in a bigger flame.
Central to the execution of a fire breathing stunt is fuel. When choosing fuel, it is important to consider its flash point, or the lowest temperature at which it will catch fire when it meets a source of ignition. Low flash point fuels can potentially ignite close to the face, creating a higher risk that the fire breather will be burned; therefore these fuels, which include substances like butane, ethyl alcohol, and gasoline, are usually avoided. Many breathers agree that the most suitable performance fuels are kerosene and lamp oil, both which have high flash points in comparison to other potential fuels.
With these tools, the fire breather can perform his illusion. Holding his torch in one hand, he should ignite the wick, afterward pointing the flame away from his body. He should then take a small amount of fuel into his mouth, being extremely careful to avoid swallowing it, and spray the fuel through his lips toward the flame in a light mist. When the fuel mist meets the torch’s flame it will quickly ignite, creating the impression that the breather has exhaled fire. After breathing he should immediately wipe his mouth and face with a flame-resistant cloth to remove any traces of fuel, lowering the risk that he will catch fire if his plume should drift back toward him.
As the fire breather gains experience, he can adjust his technique to create a wide variety of stunts. For instance, he might learn to direct the plume of flame toward the ground or shape it into an arc or a circle. He might work with one or more other breathers, performing synchronized stunts or passing plumes back and forth.
It is imperative that breathers take note of the safety risks associated with fire art. Perhaps the most pressing of these is the potential harm that fuel ingestion can cause. Even so-called “safer” fuels like kerosene can cause nausea, headaches, and a more serious condition known as chemical pneumonia if drawn into the lungs. Apart from the aforementioned burn risks that accompany low flash point fuels, long-term ingestion of many of these substances can potentially lead to cancer or blindness.
Finally, the breather should take precautions to minimize the risk of setting fire to himself, his audience, or his surroundings. He should wear flame-retardant clothes and keep at a distance from spectators. In addition, before performing a stunt he should survey his environment, making adjustments for potential fire risks like tree branches and high winds. Before performing in public, a breather should first obtain a significant amount of practice, if possible under the guidance of an experienced performer. No matter one’s experience, though, it is necessary to remember that in such a hazardous art form, accidents are always possible.