The best place to get safety information is at the North American Fire Arts Association.
Fire performance is dangerous. C’mon, really, you’re playing with fire. Think about it. Even if you’re just in the audience, you can be safe.
If you’re not performing, whether you’re comfortable with fire or not, keep clear of someone who is performing. Never move into a cleared performance area, the performer may be counting on that space and could be planning a trick that includes that area. Never try to put out a performer who has lit their clothing on fire. That breaks the first rule, and many performers plan such things as part of the show. If you think they might be unaware of the seriousness of the flame, get in their line of sight, wave your arms and shout. Approach only if they tell you to. Some performers like to bring the audience into the show. If they offer, either tell them no, or follow their instructions implicitly; don’t do anything unexpected.
As fire performers, we accept the fact that we can (some say, will) get burned at some point. Such is the nature of the game. But that doesn’t mean that you should approach this recklessly, you should keep safety in mind. Also, even if you resign yourself to the occasional burn, remember that the audience does not have that same agreement. Even if you’re with a couple of friends, keep safety for them in mind.
The basic rules of safety are as follows. One, never light up until you are comfortable with the tool. Two, never try a new move while lit. Three, never light up without a spotter. Four, make sure your performance area is safe. Five, make sure your tools are safe. Six, make sure you are safe. More information about specific points are linked above.
Let’s take the first two rules first. When using fire tools unlit, you’ll notice that it takes a bit of time to get the hang of certain moves, transitions, and sometimes the basics. Poi spinners often hit themselves at the beginning stages of learning to spin, and advanced moves can sometimes be a painful process of learning. At any point, from beginning to advanced, new moves can produce unexpected results, even if they’re only slight modifications of old moves. So, don’t light up until you can do a routine without hitting yourself, and don’t try new moves in a routine until they’re well rehearsed.
Spotters (or “safeties”) are a strongly recommended, and often necessary part of every performance. In fact, you should have a spotter every time you light up. But not just anyone will do, spotters need training in a variety of tasks. For every situation, they have to be comfortable enough around fire to be able to learn extinguishing and to assist with tied wicks. For performances, they may need first aid training, crowd control, or area fire suppression.
Now, the best spotters are members of your group, who know all of your routines, and have worked with you and your tools. But you have to train spotters some time. Personally I like to start by having them hold a burning wick in their hand. That way, they can see that a couple of seconds won’t hurt them, and they can get over any residual fear of fire (better to find it out sooner than later). A torch, poi ball, even a staff head could do the job.
Communication. The forms and styles of communication between spotters and spinners vary widely. We’d like to offer a standardization here. Usually, the times when a spotter needs to do something is when the performer has hit themself in some place not immediately visible (like the leg). If the sound system and crowd are not too loud, usually a verbal warning is enough: “Leg!” Sometimes, verbal warnings aren’t heard, or the spinner isn’t tuned into the spotter’s voice, when that happens, the spotter should move into the spinner’s field of view and use a hand gesture like smacking the area on fire. If all this doesn’t work, or if the fire threatens to get out of control, the spotter should be ready to move into the performer’s area, or even tackle them as necessary.
Wick recovery. This is where a long-standing relationship pays off best. Any tethered device could become tangled, or tied up on the user. An experienced safety will have seen this happen and have a fair idea of how to untangle the item. Sometimes this means handling a burning wick. The point here is to get the job done quickly, before the performer takes a serious burn. If a wick should go into the audience, retrieving it before the audience gets harmed could be essential. Spotters should be ready to do whatever is necessary.
Wick extinguishing. If you use damp towels, most wicks are pretty easy to get out. But if you’re using longer wicks like swords, fans or countach clubs, it’s a bit trickier. Plus, if you’ve switched over to duvetyn or other dry safety cloth, the skill level increases. Either way, make sure that spotters can handle an emergency extinguishing of any wicks you might be using. Spotters should aspire to get every wick out in under 1 second. This can be an important skill even if your troupe prefers to spin out their toys.
Crowd Control. Depending on the venue, it’s possible that the performance area could be infringed upon by drunks or otherwise impaired individuals. In addition to watching for flying fire hazards, many times spotters will have to heard crowds of drunks too. If someone is just trying to skirt around the performance area, that’s usually okay, but often, spotters will have to pull people back from asking the performer questions or whatnot. In these cases, be firm: that’s why God made belts and collars.
First aid. All knowledge is useful sometime. First aid is the kind of knowing that you hope you never need but are always glad you have. Spotters should have first aid training that covers burns and blunt force trauma. The Red Cross doesn’t currently offer a spotters class, but you could get the important parts from other classes.
Area Suppression. If something goes terribly wrong, spotters may have to choose between several options. In order, they should protect: the audience, the venue, the performer, themselves. Sometimes this will mean directing people to exits, and sometimes this will mean acting like a fireman – putting out a large scale, uncontrolled fire. One extinguisher or a damp towel probably won’t be enough. But there are ways to get things under control. Your Fire Department has all the information you’ll need. Just ask ’em. Not only will you build a relationship that might make getting permits easier, but you may save a lot of lives.
The preferred fuel for Bearclaw products, particularly hybrid wicks, is white gas. Our wicks burn long enough for most people on white that the extra length of Kero is unnecessary. Here’s a breakdown of what we know about the various fuels.
Naphtha (aka. White Gas [US], Coleman Fuel, Zippo fuel)
Naphtha is the hottest burning fuel used by most performers. It has a very low evaporation point, well below room temperature, so it will quickly evaporate from the floor, your wicks, or your containers. Mixing with vaseline will slow evaporation but make it harder to soak. This also makes it the fastest lighting fuel. Brushing a naphtha soaked wick with a flame or spark will usually ignite it immediately. Because it burns with hot-body radiation, it is the hardest fuel to color, and uses the most oxygen while burning. This gives it the advantage of being the easiest to smother of the petrol fuels. Naphtha is the preferred fuel for contact fire, hybrid wicks, large flames and relatively smoke free burning. It burns with toxic residue however, and should not be used excessively at indoor venues. It gives the biggest flame for fire breathing, but the most hazardous one as well, and it is very hard on the liver when absorbed or accidentally ingested.
Kerosine (aka. K-1, Charcoal lighter fluid, high grade diesel fuel)
Kero is almost as hot as naphtha once it gets burning. It has an evaporation point above room temperature so it will stay on your wicks for weeks, and leave an oily residue on any surface it touches. This makes it one of the slowest lighting fuels, taking several seconds to ignite from a lighter in cold temperatures. Kero can also burn in very low oxygen environments, so it is preferred over naphtha in elevated areas. Unfortunately, this also means that if it ignites on any porous surface, chances are, both sides will ignite. Like gasoline, the fumes have an explosive potential, so don’t leave kero in direct sunlight in any container and avoid storing it in cars during summer. Kero is the preferred fuel for long outdoor performance on pure Kevlar wicks. It cannot be used for contact fire, is hazardous for fire breathing, should be avoided for hybrid wicks, is very smokey and toxic for indoor venues and can be extremely difficult to fully extinguish.
Paraffin (aka. lamp oil [US], mineral oil)
Lamp oil is very similar to Kero in it’s properties. The biggest difference is that it has a slightly smaller and cooler flame that requires a little more oxygen. It’s easier to fully smother, and has a little less explosive potential. It’s also easier on the body which makes it the preferred fuel for fire breathing, though extreme cautions should be used. Although it burns almost as smokey as Kero, it generally has fewer toxins which make it the preferred fuel for long burning indoor performances. It should be noted, however, that recent testing has uncovered that paraffin can be auto-ignited (ie: without spark or flame source)at temperatures produced by fire performance. In other words, spin or hold a club through a couple of burns and the metal parts could become hot enough to ignite paraffin on contact with vapors or fuel.
Alcohol (aka, liquor, rubbing alcohol, ethanol, isopropyl _, white lightning)
Any short chain alcohol (methyl, ethyl, propyl) in mixtures above 50% (100 proof) is sufficient for many fire practices, though methanol should never be used as even it’s fumes are a neurotoxin. The higher the proof, the better the flame. Alcohol reacts like naphtha in most cases: high oxygen use, low evaporation point, quick lighting. It burns much cooler than the other fuels however, and has a tendency to go out unexpectedly on pure kevlar wicks. It’s cool flame and liver compatibility makes it the safest fuel for experimentation with new tricks, particularly fire breathing, contact fire, and close proximity wick play. However, ethyl alcohol will make you drunk if used for fire breathing, denatured alcohol (which contains methanol) can cause blindness if taken in quantity, and isopropyl has a foul taste. Alcohol has another advantage over the other fuels in that it can dissolve a variety of substances that will cause the flame to turn colors. Because of it’s whimpy flames, terry or hybrid wicks should be used when spinning to prevent unexpected extinguishing. Alcohol is the best fuel for small or short fire and burns the cleanest of all fuels for close indoor venues (except when colored).
Except where noted above, keep your fuels in their original containers for transport and storage. Some countries provide fuel containers, those should be used instead. In the fuel storage area for your performance, all fuels should be kept in sealed metal containers that are clearly marked. Test your fuel containers with a baseball. If they can’t withstand the impact of a strong throw, they may fail if a fire toy hits them. If you’re using any non-metal fuel containers, test them empty with a 6-10 second close proximity burn of white gas. Basically, try to imagine a lit wick hitting your fuel dump at the same time you have to put out someone in the audience.
On top of these measures, make sure that you at least have a safety between fire and fuel. This includes your spin out area. The best method is to insure that there is a hard wall between them. Don’t allow audience members near your fuel, and post the area as non-smoking.
Whenever you’ll be spinning near other people, you should always get excess fuel off your wicks before lighting. Do this by spinning them quickly until droplets stop coming off. You should probably do this every time, though it makes for nice effects when controlled and handled properly. For safety, do this away from the performance area, and away from traffic zones if you’re using kero or lamp oil.
One of the trickiest parts of the performance is the area around you. No matter how much you prepare for a show, the performance area is the one thing you sometimes cannot control. The two parts of the performance area are audience and terrain; either the venue’s stage or the surrounding nature.
Audience. Your audience is rarely exactly what you’d like them to be. They may be uninformed about fire and not appreciate your trickier moves. They may not appreciate your need for a defined performance area. And they almost never, as a body, have full knowledge of fire safety. So, you need to judge your crowd and react appropriately. If you’re at a bar, chances are you’ll have drunk people around. Incite extra safeties to keep the crowd back. If you’re at a rave watch out for people a little too interested in the show. And really watch out if there’s kids. If you’re at an event where people are dressed in highly flammable clothing (costume balls, etc), get some extra towels and soak ’em up with water, just to have ready. Having them in a sober person’s hands is better than nothing.
Indoors. Some indoors venues will have a stage that will keep the audience at bay, fire resistant materials all around, and a room where you can keep your fuel. Most won’t. Any time you’re indoors, ask the promoter about the performance area. Make sure you know any trouble zones that might be near you (draperies, art, etc). Try to form a safe place away from the performance area that you can use to store fuel and spin out. A back door is usually best, but a separate room will do. Remember to mop up after spinning out with Kero. You can also use orange cones and caution tape to set up a performance perimeter.
Outdoors. If you’re on a beach, usually, you only need to worry about crowd control. Anywhere else, and the plant life may become a problem. Unless it has recently rained, it’s a good idea to consider all plants as highly flammable. You should keep an extinguisher near any large plants, particularly if they extend overhead.
Indoors or out, keep a safety between you and your fuel. Unless you can lock your fuel in a fireproof box, there’s always the slim chance that a wick could end up near it. The fuel safety should have the biggest towel or cloth you have and should be ready to catch a lit wick entering your fuel area.
The general rule for insuring the safety of any fire tool is to make sure that the wick(s) can’t unexpectedly leave your control and enter the audience area or cart hazardous areas. The fastest way to check is to hold the tool where you normally would, grab the wick and give it a good yank. If it comes off, it’s probably not safe. The yank should be appropriate to the amount of force the wick would normally take: poi should be yanked much harder than fans, for example. Also, for many tools, check screws, nuts and bolts for any loose parts and tighten as appropriate.
For Bearclaw products, consult the safety page included with your purchase. Here’s some specifics for standard tools:
- Check the grips for wear: if leather, tug firmly, if kevlar, check for fraying.
- Verify that chains are solid and undamaged.
- Check links: replace key rings, tighten quick links, check quick snaps for discoloration.
- Check wicks: insure that wick is securely on its binding and that no fastener can come off.
- Insure that ball is attached firmly.
- Check wood parts for cracks.
- Insure wick is firmly attached.
- Check staff integrity; look for cracks or bends in material.
- Verify the security of wicks.
- Check structural integrity of the fan in general; twist, bend, whatever.
- Check wicks make sure they’re on tight and unfrayed.
- Check that each finger fits properly well before show time. Tighten or loosen as appropriate.
- Make sure wicks are properly attached and secure.
- Test fingers before lighting with vigorous swinging to insure secure attachment.
Not only should you be sober, awake and sharp when you are performing but you should take precautions to keep from getting burned too. The first thing is to make sure your mind an body are fit. You may ‘get loosened up’ with a little drink, meditation or pharmaceutical, but anything that alters your sharpest state could endanger yourself or your audience. Be smart, save your loosening up for after the performance or practice.
Avoid flammable fabrics: lightweight fabrics, lace, and flammable stretch. Heavy denim, leather, pleather, and fire treated fabrics are your friend. Keep your hair covered if it’s loose or long, and use something that can be slipped off quick if needed. Avoid loose clothing or elaborate sleeving. If you have to wear it, make sure that you’ve rehearsed well in it and at least once lit.
Know your area. If you’ve got a specific routine planned out, make sure you have the room to do it. If your space is limited, plan your routine accordingly. If you’re performing around drunk or stupid people (you KNOW what I’m saying), have extra safeties for crowd control. Even if you haven’t been drinking, drunk people are notorious for walking into a performance.
Also, if you’ve never done it, I recommend holding a burning wick in your hand. It’s not that bad, certainly not for a second or so; just avoid touching the metal. Getting used to fire on your skin can give you the confidence to handle it when you’re not in control of it, like when a poi or whip gets wrapped around you.
Ultimately, if anything goes wrong with your performance, it’s your fault. You should have trained, sober safeties.You should have well-maintained, reliable, and tested equipment. You need to have a clear area. You need to protect the venue and environment. You need to know what you’re doing.
Okay. Here’s the touchiest part of all. Social responsibility. Every fire performer must have the confidence to do the job well. But sometimes this confidence can lead to danger. An experienced performer often develops certain habits that may not jive with more accepted fire safety rules. As a performer, a member of this community, it is your responsibility to try to help amend this problem.
Why? So far, it hasn’t been much of a problem, but all it would take is a fresh lit wick hitting the wrong audience member to make life hard for all of us. Just imagine being required to have a license to spin, insurance, a federal approval stamp on every tool you use (refreshed monthly) and a fire marshal present every time you light up, or risk a year or more in jail. That’s what some pyrotechnic operators go through, just to use blanks. Worse yet, imagine risking jail every time you light a wick.
One screw-up from even a very experience performer could make this happen. It doesn’t matter what your experience level is, you should watch out for the community whenever you see someone spinning. They may be inexperienced newbies without a general clue, they may be cocky experienced spinners taking a couple of shortcuts, or they may be a professional troupe that simply forgot a couple of things. Whatever the case, if safety isn’t first on their mind, help out.
Ask people you don’t know if you can see their tools. Check them for cracks, loose bolts, whatever. Even if it has the Bearclaw logo on it, well used tools can develop problems. If you notice a problem, point it out. If they haven’t noticed it, usually it’s because they’re too busy to deal with it, if so, offer to fix it for them. You may allow them to keep that tool in their routine safely. If you spot a possible problem with their equipment, try to point out a specific incidence where the problem has arisen: “my friend lost a wick because he used key rings like these, and they broke during a leg wrap.” If not, keep any criticism internally focused: “I don’t feel safe about that staff” or “I get a little nervous when you spin those torches.” They may blow you off, but a few people saying it may drive the point home.
General safety. If you notice someone about to light up without an apparent safety (our group, for example, is switching to duvetyne cloaks instead of towels), ask if they have them, or offer to spot. I’ve never heard anyone refuse such an offer. At worse, they’ll point out their safety measures. If they give you with a blank look, lecture. Sometimes, you’ll notice safety problems as they arise. If so, feel free to yell them out quickly: “there’s a bush right behind you!”
Serious problems. If you see someone spinning with a clear path to their fuel, a child moving into the performance area, or anything else that could become a big problem; fix it. If someone is belligerent enough to come down on you for trying to keep their audience safe, take one for the team, stand your ground, and explain your viewpoint rationally. If they continue grossly unsafe practices, keep fixing them, or ask some performers to back you up in an intercession. If that doesn’t work, and the problem is serious enough, perhaps the police could help you make your point.
If you’re not sure about a particular safety point, it never hurts to ask. If you think you’re more experienced, find a professional to answer the question for you (you can always write us). If you feel less experienced than the person with the problem, ask them. Most performers are glad to share their reasoning behind safety. And if you ask them, it could be a very comfortable way to point out a particular problem that they overlooked. If they tell you that although they do it but you shouldn’t, point out to them that a stupid practice is stupid no matter who does it.
This isn’t a game. Fire performance is an art for many, a profession for some, and even spiritual to it’s practitioners. If you would like to do a little more, Bearclaw recommends that you look up a professional organization like the North American Fire Arts Association.