Jugglers tend to believe that adding fire to a prop is a straightforward matter of
learning a few more techniques and being “careful.” But if you don’t know what to
be careful about, no precautions can save you from being badly hurt or from
hurting someone else. I’ve tried here to put together a summary of the relative
risks and consequences of fire and fire props in juggling. My intention is to help
you understand these risks so that you can make informed decisions. Therefore I
have not excluded any practices, props, or fuels merely because I think they are
too dangerous. You will have to decide for yourself the kind and degree of risk
you are willing to take.
On the other hand, I have included almost no information or instruction on
technique. I believe that it is better to learn directly from someone with
experience. This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t learn technique from
books or web sites -- but they are just not as reliable or as safe as direct
experience and guidance. If you are going to learn fire performance, read
everything you can find, and trust nothing completely. Then find a teacher.
Please experience, opinions, corrections, and any new information you have
uncovered to this summary. I do very little fire performance myself, so I greatly
depend on the help of friends and critics.
Waiver! Waiver! This is the waiver waiver. My only recommendation and advice
is: don’t use fire! I cannot guarantee the accuracy or reliability of anything written
here. Things change, and despite my best efforts, I may have made errors -- so I
strongly encourage you to seek other sources of information. The following
material is not warranted to serve any purpose whatsoever, and anything you do
with it and any inferences made on the basis of your understanding of it is entirely
your own responsibility. So there.
BASIC SAFETY EQUIPMENT & PROCEDURES
1. Large towel or safety blanket. If your hair or clothes catch on fire, use the towel/
blanket to smother the flames. Use pre washed 100% cotton: artificial fibers will
melt and may contaminate burns, and new cotton is full of flammable lint.
Commercial kitchen suppliers carry fireproof blankets designed specifically to put
out fires. 2. Small fire extinguisher. If anything else catches fire, or if the towel isn’t
big enough to cover the flame, use the fire extinguisher. Never aim at or near
anyone’s face. Co2 extinguishers may freeze the skin. Dry powder extinguishers
can contain anything from baking soda to very esoteric compounds, so send the
extinguisher with the burn victim so the doctors will know how to treat the burns.
Make sure the emergency service people know why the extinguisher is there . 3.
Someone who knows how to use the towel and extinguisher. When you are in the
middle of a performance it is easy to forget or ignore safety procedures. When
you’ve kicked over the fuel bottle and your shoes are on fire, or you are panicked
because of intense pain, you need someone who knows what to do and won’t
hurt you more than the fire.
I once saw a friend almost knocked unconscious by people who tried to put out a
fire in his hair by beating on it with their hands. I saw another friend almost
suffocated by someone who used a fire extinguisher to put out a small clothing
fire -- he couldn’t take a deep breath for a month. So tell a friend or a volunteer
from the audience about #1 and #2 before you light up. Make it part of your act. 4.
Small towel for wipe-ups. The small towel is necessary to wipe spills and dribbles
on yourself, and is useful for small spills that might damage the finish or paint on
anything else your fuel might come in contact with. Do not use the big towel for
this. (Think about it.) 5. Metal or plastic fuel bottle with attached cap. The more
fuel you carry with you, the greater the risk of unexpected fire or explosion. Also,
a large fuel can that is almost empty can be as dangerous as a small bomb. So
carry only as much fuel with you as you need for your performance.
Glass containers can break and scatter fuel. Even if glass containers are closed,
if they come in contact with flame for more than a few seconds they can explode.
Wide-mouth plastic sports bottles holding no more than a quart/litter of liquid are
popular, but should be checked regularly for cracks and leaks. They should be
strong enough to withstand being stepped on without bursting or blowing off the
Metal screw-top fuel bottles are the safest, but because the mouth of most fuel
bottles is small you’ll also need a bowl or cup to hold fuel for dipping your torches.
Wide-mouth all-metal thermos bottles are excellent though expensive, and come
with a cup.
6. Airtight metal container for torches and other fire equipment. A metal tool chest
will smother the flames on your torches, will store them safely, and will keep them
from spreading soot all over everything. A cylindrical metal food-storage canister
holds Fyreflys nicely, and is airtight enough to extinguish flames immediately. 7.
Fireproof clothing. Fireproof clothing is hard to find. Sometimes a fireman’s used
Nomex or Kevlar approach suit, or a racing driver’s old suit is available for a few
bucks. New, they cost over $1,000. The next safest clothing is leather, pure wool,
untreated 100% cotton, and your own skin, in about that order.
Plastics and artificial fibers are very dangerous because they catch fire or melt
quickly, and will mix with burning flesh so that healing is more difficult. Cotton,
leather, and wool can eventually be absorbed as your body heals. Skin,
especially after you work up a bit of sweat, is not very flammable, but it can be
scorched and singed. Rayon, nylon, Dacron, etc. go up in flames almost instantly.
Jeans and a T-shirt (100% cotton) are quite common fire garb and are relatively
safe. Loose clothing is more likely to get in the way than clothing that fits well. If
your hair is long, tie it back. Don’t use hairspray or cologne before performing.
If you spill fuel on your clothing you must change clothes before lighting up. Even
after carefully blotting up spills, your clothing will retain enough fuel to act exactly
like a torch. Blotting up spills on clothing may save you from a skin rash, but not
If you use volunteers in your act, be sure that their clothing is also relatively fire-
safe. There are few things that flare up faster than a woman in nylons and a rayon
dress, packed in a crowd and unable to move, even when a dropped torch lands
at her feet.
8. Matches and cigarette lighters. Book matches and cigarette lighters are
standard equipment. But don’t put that lighter in your pocket after lighting up. If
your pants catch fire the lighter may explode. There are a number of one-legged
ex-firemen who can testify to this. This applies to both butane and zippo-type
lighters. Also, use matches if you have to hold the flame above a prop’s wick
when lighting it. Any time a lighter is enveloped in flame it can explode. 9. Travel
light. Carry only as much fuel with you as you plan to use, and never keep it in the
passenger compartment of a vehicle: in an accident it will spray over everything.
For long trips, don’t take fuel with you: buy it when you get there. Public
transportation such as planes, busses, and trains have strict rules regarding fuel
-- find out what they are and follow them.
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