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28

May

2012

Walking on Fire

By ActionGeek. Posted in Action, Crazy/Weird | No Comments »

There’s something about fire… it doesn’t matter if it’s a wood burner in a cosy living room, a small campfire by a river, or a huge raging bonfire on 5th November, people are drawn to it like moths to a lamp. I spent much of my childhood living in an old farmhouse which was always being renovated and extended, and we often had bonfires in the back garden to dispose of tree cuttings or wooden waste from the building works. I’d always be excited, helping my father to build a pile of wood, sometimes splashing on a little parafin to get things going if the cuttings were still wet, and then I’d carefully tend the fire as it roared away. One particular afternoon I was using an old piece of steel rebar as a “poker” and found it was fun to leave one end right inside the hot embers until it was glowing red, then carefully pull the bar out and marvel at how this solid rod of cold hard steel had been transformed into an orange glow with the power to throw off huge amounts of steam if it was dipped into the nearby duck pond!

I don’t recall whether my little sister had been “helping” with the fire from when it was lit, but I do know she was joining in with my duckpond dipping though being a couple of years younger than me (I guess I was about 8 or 9 at the time) maybe didnt quite grasp the danger of a red hot steel bar. At one point while holding the bar (safely from the cool end) she turned around towards me and the other, red hot, end came hurtling towards me. Instinctively I put my hands up to block it, and instantly let out a scream as it touched the palm of my right hand. It was probably the sound of my scream which made her drop the bar, which luckily had only touched me skin for a brief moment, but it was long enough to cause a huge amount of pain and sear a stripe of skin right across the palm and on the inside the fingers.

It’s strange what the brain remembers. More than 30 years on from that day, the thing I remember most vividly was not getting burned, but being at a friend’s birthday party that evening and sitting in the corner with a bandaged hand while the other children were dancing around the living room while terrible 80s party music blasted out and 4 coloured “disco lights” flashed along to the beat. I remember feeling very sorry for myself not being able to join in the fun, and resentful of my sister for causing it, though it clearly wasn’t her fault, and luckily the burn was actually pretty minor and didn’t do any lasting damage.

That day definitely gave me a renewed respect for fire though, and when I first saw someone WALKING ON FIRE (I’m pretty sure it was on an episode of Record Breakers but it was a long time ago so I could easily be misremembering that) I was stunned. I mean, if touching a red hit bar for a fraction of a second could cause so much pain (and missing a party!) then how could anyone possibly endure walking barefoot over red hot coals!

The event was being organised by a local charity, The Merlin Center, to raise funds for their Multiple Sclerosis therapy center. I paid my fee, and collected a couple of hundred quid in sponsorship from friends and family, and waited eagerly for the day to arrive. The event was being held at a local rugby club, and when I arrive the organisers were already laying out logs and safety fences on the turn alongside the pitch. Those of us who would be taking part in the walk were ushered into a room in the club house for a safety briefing.

I was worried there might be a lot of hippy mumbo jumbo in the talk, telling us about the “power of the mind” and that we had to focus our chi energy at our feet to avoid getting burned or something like that. I needn’t have worried though, the chap giving the talk was actually very down to earth. He explained the reason why it was possible to walk barefoot on red hot coals without burning (while the embers are red hot, the coals from dry wood are pretty poor conductors of heat, so if you keep moving at a constant pace and keep your feet fairly flat so no part “digs in” the foot should have lifted off each step before it has a chance to burn) and explained what to do if am ember gets “stuck” to your foot (basically you wipe your feet in the grass when you step off the end). I saw a few nervous and concerned faces as I looked around the room, but he did a great job of putting people’s minds at rest. I did laugh at the end when he was answering questions and somebody asked what happens if you trip and fall over on the fire. His response, along with a big grin, was simply “Well, you’ll get up again really f***ing quickly!”

Finally it was time to step outside. A large crowd of spectators, most of them with a beer in hand and clearly hoping to see someone’s feet get burned, had gathered to watch. Those of us participating lined up alongside the fire land as the organisers spent a few minutes introducing themselves to the crowd, and raking the coals (dies the flames down and evens the size of the embers to make the bed flat to walk on). I could feel the heat coming off the fire on my face as I stood nearby, and when invited to we each bent down and put our hand above the fire to test the heat – I reached down a few inches above the embers, and I could only keep it there for a couple of seconds – it was red hot! That was when the nerves kicked in. I knew intellectually that this was very safe, I knew the science of why it was possible, but that primitive instinctual part of my brain screamed at me FIRE, RUN AWAY!

Fire walking

It's a shame it wasn't half an hour later as the light had faded, it's hard to tell from the pic but those coals really were glowing red!

The organiser took his shoes off and walked across first as a demonstration to cheers from the crowd, and then one by one the rest of us followed, each person’s facing transforming from nervous, to unsure, to grinning as they walked the few meters over the coals and realised that they weren’t getting burned. We all had 2 – 3 goes, before being given a certificate, posing for a group photo for the local paper, and then cleaning the soot off our feet with wet wipes! I didn’t even get a blister, and while I suspect the adrenaline caused by the slight nervousness and the cheering crowd has something to do it it, I really didn’t even feel that much heat. 20 minutes after the event, beer from the club house in hand, I went back outside and once again bent down over the dying embers. Yes, they really were still red hot even now, there’s no way I could put my hand anywhere near them.

Another one crossed off the list! I saw Derren Brown on stage a couple of years ago walking over broken glass, perhaps that’s one to try next…