Two articles about firewalking follow:

1. Investigator No. 48
2. Investigator No. 56


(Investigator 48, 1996 May)

Firewalking was introduced to England in 1935 by ghost-buster Harry Price. The practice already existed in dozens of countries as part of religious ceremony and ritual.

In the 1980s firewalking became a fad in New Age circles and was taught  in numerous expensive seminars. It was promoted as a powerful  motivator toward personal change so that fear is overcome and success in life achieved.

About 100,000 Americans tried firewalking in the 1980s!

New Age seminar conductors often claimed supernatural forces are at work during firewalking. Such claims in turn attracted the wrath of the skeptics.

Tony Robbins of California planned firewalking exhibitions in Australia in the early 1980s. He cancelled when the Australian Skeptics and their American counterparts launched a media campaign.

University physics lecturer Dr John Campbell of New Zealand has done many firewalks as a fundraising activity.

What is taken to be "glowing coals" is really leftover charcoal from thoroughly burnt wood. Observers see the red glow because firewalking is usually done at night.

The outer layer of charcoal may be above 500C. But inside it's much cooler. Therefore, although the outer temperature is high the total heat content per unit volume of charcoal is low. Charcoal is crumbly and therefore also conducts heat slowly. If the person's steps are rapid, say two steps per second, and the firewalk is only a few metres, there is little risk.

A report in Nature (1935 September 28) concluded that with quick steps the temperature of the feet rises about 20oC. A three metre walk is achievable even with tender feet! Often the ground before and after the firewalk is wet and this gives additional protection.

The Crows, an Adelaide football team, planned a 10-metre firewalk in January 1992. The first to cross got burnt!

Sometimes a walk is done over hot stones. A Mrs C. Leach claimed to observe:

"During the raking and levelling of the stones, other (cold) stones are raked into the pit and prodded with long poles to ensure that they do not roll. Then the walk is started. All start with the same foot, follow the same pattern, and then all step out with the same foot."
(Australasian Post 1988 April 30 p.55)
If you do a firewalk don't pause to save a match by lighting your cigarette on the charcoal beneath your feet!
(B M)


(Investigator 56, 1997 September)

Fire has long been venerated variously as the seed of life, the agent for purification and renewal, and as a sacred element.

An essential function of many practitioners of the paranormal is their demonstration of man's mastery over the fire element by walking on burning embers or holding red hot irons without apparent injury. In general, firewalking is confined to walking over glowing embers and it's awe inspiring to see bare footed humans pass over hot coals or super heated stones unscathed, particularly when, even as a spectator standing some distance from the fire, the intense heat radiating from it can be felt.

In recent times, motivators have been conducting lucrative seminars purporting to teach people how to overcome their fear of being burned. By teaching them how to control their minds they claim that they are able to overcome any limitation they have created in their lives whether it be fear of failure, rejection or heat. American motivators in particular promote mind-over-matter techniques and claim that they can lead people over fires with a temperature of two thousand degrees centigrade. After repeatedly going over the mental state required of the participants, which include confessing one's innermost fears both verbally and in writing, all successfully negotiate the hot coals unharmed. However, far from being mind over matter, the ability to seemingly endure the unbearable has a simple scientific explanation.

At one time or another most of us have picked up a hot cinder and dropped it back into the fire without feeling any discomfort. It was done quickly and probably preceded by licking the fingers. The principle involved in firewalking is the same, the natural moisture on the soles of the feet and the short period of time that they are in contact with the hot coals, precludes the possibility of being burned. It's a matter of conductivity. A simple analogy is to imagine a cake baking in an oven at 200 C. The temperature of the cake, the tin and the air are all the same. Touch the tin and you'll be burned, touch the cake and although it feels hot you'll be safe, hold your hand in the air above the cake and there will be little discomfort. The embers in the fire have low heat content and poor thermal conductivity, so if you don't dally too long on each step you won't get burned.

One scientific investigation carried out by Chas. R. Darling and reported in Nature, Sept. 28 1935,  consisted of pressing a thermal junction on to the fire intermittently so as to imitate the period of contact of each foot and the interval between each step, a number of separate trials showed a rise of 15-20 C in the junction – conclusive proof that the feet of the performer would not be hot enough for blistering to occur.

It should be noted that in most firewalking demonstrations there is much hype going on prior to the demonstration during which time the coals have cooled considerably,  more often than not participants also step from a wet or damp patch of ground on to the hot embers and off the other end on to another wet patch. There are also chemical preparations which can be applied to the soles of the feet to provide additional insulation.

Summed up, there is nothing mystical about firewalking. It is merely a gymnastic feat or "sleight of feet!"

[From:  Skeptoon an illustrated look at some New Age Beliefs 1994, Harry Edwards.
 Published by Harry Edwards Publications

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