Science Questions

Whatís the science behind fire-walking?

Sun, 21st Oct 2007

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Neil Gibson asked:

Iíve been watching Michael Palin making his way round Europe on the BBC, including Estonians fire-walking. Whatís the science behind fire-walking, why donít they burn their feet. Is it a trick or something?


Thereís no trick to it necessarily. Itís not entirely what it looks like. Basically there are three components.  The first thing to consider is that when youíre walking across fire, understandably, you do it a bit quickly.  So youíre actually minimising the time that any particular part of your body is in contact with the fire. This is the same reason that lizards scoot about in the desert on hot rocks. The quicker they move, the less theyíre going to burn themselves.  There are two other things: the fires are lit and left to burn until they become like a barbecue.  The top layer of that is ash.  Ash is actually a pretty good insulator against the direct heat underneath.  So you can feel the heat above it but the burning heat wonít get through so much.  Also carbon is the component of the coals.  Carbon is a very poor conductor of heat so the burning at the bottom of the fire pit wonít come up so much. So itís not as hot as it looks and also you go across it very fast.

There is another theory that because youíre a bit nervous, just as you would get sweaty hands, your feet sweat a bit and you effectively surf across the top of the coals on a cushion of steam which also helps to keep the temperature down.


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