A Skeptic’s Guide to Firewalking

This article first appeared as a Vic Skeptics discussion pamphlet.
The full range of our discussion pamphlets can be downloaded here: http://www.skeptics.com.au/resources/educational/ or by clicking on the “Useful Info” link at the top of this page.

What is firewalking?

Typically, firewalking involves walking with bare feet across a level bed of hot glowing coals, the remnant of a wood fire. On the Pacific Islands, heated stones are substituted for coals.

What are the claims?

Firewalking is often touted as “mind over matter”. Mystical mental powers are supposed to enable a person to block out the pain associated with the intense heat, and to prevent the feet from burning. Participants at “mental powers” workshops often pay hundreds of dollars to be taught these “ancient mental techniques” that allow them to “defy the laws of nature”.

Can YOU do it?

The Australian Skeptics recommend that you do not attempt firewalking yourself. Although a properly set-up firewalk should be safe, some Australian motivational workshop’s firewalks have gone horribly wrong. The organisers put too much reliance in mystical mental powers rather than understanding the physics involved in preparing the bed of coals correctly, and also failed to understand the necessity of keeping the contact between feet and coals brief.

That said, although walking across hot coals sounds crazy, any fit person can do it. No special mind techniques are required (apart from the courage to take the first step). Although the coals are very hot – (400 to 800ºC), the important thing is how quickly heat energy is transferred to the feet while they are touching the coals. The following photos were taken during a Firewalk which the Australian Skeptics conducted for ABCTV.

ABC / Australian Skeptics Firewalk Sydney 2007

 
 
 
 

Well-known Australian Skeptic Richard Saunders firewalking in 2007

Why don’t your feet get burned?

Before something can burn it must absorb sufficient heat energy to raise it to its burning temperature. The rate at which heat energy is absorbed depends on:

1. the temperature difference between hot (coals) and cold (feet).

2. the amount of heat energy present in the heat source;

3. how quickly heat is conducted through the heat source.

If you have a heat source that does not hold much heat energy and is a poor conductor of heat you can touch it without getting burnt even if it is very hot. A good example is a cake baking in an oven in a metal dish. While both cake and dish are at the same temperature, you can briefly touch the cake, but the metal dish will burn you. Red-hot Charcoal can also be touched briefly. Because it is porous, it does not hold much heat energy. It is also a poor conductor of heat, so when a hot coal is touched quickly, only the surface heat is transferred to the skin. Most of the heat remains inside the coals.

When a person walks across hot coals, their feet are in contact with the coals for less than a second. Hence, they can safely take several steps across a bed of hot coals.

Firewalks Montage, Vic Skeptics 1994

(Click to enlarge)

The collection above represents a number of firewalks conducted by Vic Skeptics in the 1990s. Participants include Steve Monaghetti (Olympic Marathon runner and engineer), Peter “Crackers” Keenan (AFL great), Professor Ian Plimer and current Vic Skeptics VP Peter Hogan.

References:

Firewalking – A Painless Way to Raise Money. John Campbell, Lab Talk, Dec 1990, STAV

http://www.csicop.org/si/show/physics_behind_four_amazing_demonstrations/

http://skepdic.com/firewalk.html [Discusses the use of firewalking as a motivator.]

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3127175426821457459&q=firewalking

Poster: click to enlarge

8 Responses to A Skeptic’s Guide to Firewalking

  1. Snakeman says:

    Fire walking (OK you’ve exposed the “scam”) and now getting bitten by deadly snakes and surviving.
    A few years back (2004), I was able to line up the world’s five deadliest snakes and let them all bite me.
    I survived the bites without anti-venom and could easily have made bold claims of super powers and the like.
    The reality was different. In a world first I had surgically devenomized snakes, making them totally safe.
    The reason for this wasn’t to perform stunts or the like, but rather so that we could do kids reptile parties in Melbourne with safety and so as to stop the need to belt the snakes around with metal sticks.
    Now here’s one for the skeptics.
    Our business competitors are now putting claims all over the web and elsewhere claiming that the devenomized snakes regenerate venom glands and are dangerous.
    the claims are made without any inspection of the said snakes or similar.
    In our case we have the snakes here and 7 years after first operations none have regenerated a drop of venom, or any venom gland (confirmed via autopsy of the few that have died from old age).
    Yes, we still line them up to bite me, just to confirm they have no venom.
    Question is, how do we stop these ratbags from spreading the lies about regeneration of snake venom glands when it doesn’t actually happen?
    Or is that beyond the power of skeptics as well>
    All the best
    The snake man

  2. keng2 says:

    Hi Snake Man,

    Your deliberate snake-bite scenario is a bit like firewalking in that both belong firmly in the “Don’t Try This At Home” category.
    I suppose one of the things that can help prevent unsupportable views taking hold is when experienced people such as yourself publicly voice your opposition. Having said that, I have to confess that I have no experience with snakes, devenomised or otherwise, so I’m not able to comment further: I even googled “Snake Devenomation” and discovered only forums that I would need to join in order to learn more.
    One thing I have learned today is that there is a market for kids reptile parties in Melbourne!
    As to “the Power of the Skeptics” ; what is this mystic power of which you speak?

  3. Paul Gallagher says:

    So…

    Bed of hot coals; about one second per step = insufficient conduction time and no burning.

    Bed of nails; lie flat and surface area = evenly distributed weight and no ouch!

    I better down that write.

  4. Christopher says:

    Years ago I was talking to people at a science fair about Firewalking and an studious Iranian (?) gentleman told me that firewalking did have a long and ancient tradition, but it had nothing to do with “mind over matter”. During funerals people would get so demonstrative in their grief that they would do things like pull their hair, whip themselves, and walk on hot coals. The idea was they would be in pain!

  5. Paul Gallagher says:

    An interesting comment Snakeman.

    With respect to not belting snakes around, I appreciate your ethical approach. Nonetheless, perhaps the following from Venomoid FAQ is pertinent. Following bold and emphasis mine.

    “Q. Is the venomoid operation humane? Does it hurt the snake?
    A. Yes, it hurts the snake a lot. A snake’s mouth is filled with nerve endings, just like the mouth of any other animal. Oral surgery is painful, especially when they have to cut all the way into the head to remove two large glands. And unfortunately, most people who perform these procedures on snakes are not veterinarians. They are doing the operation illegally at home for profit, so they don’t have any drugs to give the animals after the operation for pain relief. Instead of sterile surgical instruments, the amateurs may use makeshift cutting tools from craft stores and hardware stores as you can see in this article here…”.

    And;
    “Q. Is the operation painless when it’s done by a veterinarian?
    A. No. Even assuming the vet uses pain relief medication, which not all vets know how to do yet for reptiles, it still hurts.”

    A September 2008submission to the Inquiry into environmental regulation in Victoria, by Raymond Hoser includes on page 8;

    “89. Initially there were numerous posts on the internet and elsewhere expressing the view that it was impossible to devenomize snakes and other information along the lines of “the snakes will regrow venom”. Both arguments were false. This was obvious before the paper went to print in 2004 and remains unchanged.

    90. Other claims of pain and suffering in the affected snakes were also false and easily measured to be. This is because pain and suffering in snakes is easily measured and detected and the venomoids simply didn’t have any!”.

    90 seems in contrast to the above FAQ, and it seems the primary factor is anesthetized surgery. Raymond Hoser Reviewed and edited by Raymond Hoser”;also reviewed and edited “The Venomoid F.A.Q. Written by Devenomized.com”. This includes in the opening paragraph;

    “Q. Is it possible to defang or devenomize a venomous snake in order to make it harmless?
    A. In theory, it is of course possible to defang a snake, but defanging is a cruel, brutal and archaic method of rendering a venomous snake harmless…. Venomoid surgery is a much more civilized and much less cruel method of rendering a venomous snake harmless – defanging is a disgusting and primitive practice which should not even be considered.”

    And;
    “Q. Can any venomous snake be made into a venomoid?
    A. At the moment, it does not appear that rearfanged snakes (family Colubridae) can be successfully rendered nonvenomous by surgical means. In theory, any member of the Viperidae or Elapidae families can.”

    Aside from rearfanged snakes not being able to be made venomoid, ultimately the Victorian Inquiry rejected Hoser’s submitted claims and found there is a risk of venom glands regrowing. The VCAT decision is here. A Wikipedia entry states in part;

    “Legal questions have been raised about amateur venomoid surgeries, since the Australian 1986 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act states that animals must be anesthetized for the duration of an operation. In 2007 the Victoria state government amended the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 to ban the removal of venom glands from snakes unless performed for a therapeutic reason by a registered veterinarian. In addition, a 2008 government tribunal ruled that venomoid snakes cannot be handled by members of the public, due to the risk of the venom glands regrowing.“.

    There is a Yahoo! Answer refuting the Victorian Government’s claims of regrowth, however.

    Raymond Hoser has written extensively on the subject including on his own site – Venomoid Snakes. The point for us to remember is that removal of venom glands in Victoria is banned under the Cruelty To Animals Act, 1986, which was amended in 2008 for this purpose.

    I was intrigued to note your reference above, is produced by Snakebusters, “the world leaders in terms of working with venomoid as in devenomized snakes, to give an unbiased and accurate account of the consequences of surgically devenomizing snakes.

    It includes a reference to diazepam, a benzodizapine prescribed for anxiety, seizures, insomnia, muscle spasms/tension, etc, as a “Post operative pain killer”. One is not being unreasonable to expect better from “world leaders”, whom are arguing against established veterinary advice.

    It thus seems despite the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, devenomized snakes are further denied largely ineffective analgesia and anti-anxiety medication, for apparently dubious reasons.

    Assuming handlers decide to ignore the legality and suffering, “so that we could do kids reptile parties in Melbourne with safety”, the following does provoke some forethought.

    “Q. What about safety issues? I give education programs and I don’t want kids to get bitten.
    A. Consider sending the right safety message by handling only nonvenomous snakes in front of the kids and displaying the venomous species in securely locked cages. There have already been injuries to children who were playing with venomous snakes because they saw them being handled on a popular television show. You should probably not be reinforcing the message that venomous snakes are okay to touch and hold.” [Source]

    Ultimately, one is forced to conclude that business rivalry aside, evidence shows there are two clear breaches of Victorian legislative requirements; illegal handling around and/or by the public and perpetration of animal cruelty. Furthermore, as noted above, there is arguably a dangerous, or potentially lethal, desentisation of children around venomous snakes.

    And no mystical power can assuage those concerns.

  6. Snakeman says:

    Paul Gallagher, thanks for your post.
    I can’t help but correct some obvious lies and misinformation you have peddled and first without dealing with the subject at hand – devenomized snakes, but instead rather the internet as a whole.
    You can use the internet to support any argument you like.
    Flat earth theories, green men on mars and even the lie that devenomized snakes regenerate venom..
    So that is where arguments contrary to ours come from.
    Now in this country, Australia, myself and my staff are the ONLY experts on the venomoid (devenomized snakes) subject.
    No one else does or has done the surgery successfully, even though as it happens the operation is about as idiot proof as a surgical process can be.
    Claims about backyard operations, dirty equipment are a furphy and could be levelled in terms of any procedure, be it abortions, castrations, heart surgery or anthing else and can hardly be used as justification to argue about one procedure (venomoids) in isolation.
    Referring to the VCAT judgement, the fact is, a demonstrably corrupt and dishonest judge with no expertise on snakes is hardly likely to know as much as someone who’s worked on the things for years, or more specifically, devenomized snakes for the best part of a decade on a daily basis.
    Now, you choose who to believe?
    She says venomoids regenerate venom and are dangerous. I say they don’t. Simple choice really.
    By the way, the whole VCAT matter was rigged (as most VCAT cases are), (recall 162 Victorians died in Black Saturday (7 Feb 09) after a few years of VCAT judges refusing to allow homeowners to clear vegetation, because they denied any risk of fires to homes or their occupants … but that’s diverging somewhat).
    Anyway, if you see the VCAT judgement, the Judge, Anne Coghlan, referred to a series of claims by snake venom salesman Peter Mirtschin that snakes can regenerate eyes that are totally removed.
    That is turned out was the hook she hung her judgement decision on, to assert that my own venomoids were a major public hazard.
    In case you don’t know this, Peter Mirtschin has now quite vocally renounced the claim in writing, taking all the shifting sands away from the VCAT judgement.
    As a result, we intend going back to VCAT to reverse that part of the judgement (the claim that venomoids regenerate venom), even though we are (under duress) happy to abide by the final directive as we have now spent about 10,000 dollars in compliance costs and our business hasn’t collapsed as a result of the judgement, (assuming the rules applied to us are not changed again at any stage).
    How we go about returning to VCAT is something we haven’t yet decided (either by way of application, or simply a new hearing).
    Your claims our operations have gone against established veterinary procedures is wrong on several grounds, but suffice to say our operations have been supervised and endorsed by numerous vet surgeons of decades standing, making your claim questionable.
    Question to you – Paul Gallagher – are you a qualified vet surgeon, or have you spent too much time on the web trolling for rubbish to post against me to further misinformation found elsewhere on the web – (don’t we call this Dr. google?)
    Your references to Wikipedia are astounding as that is the troll’s paradise and replete with errors on almost every page (certainly all pages my name is mentioned), the simplest example to locate being on the page created specifically to attack myself (the “Raymond Hoser” wikipedia page) which claims (with weblinks to add “credibility”) that I lost a trademark court case in relation to my trademark “Snakebuster”.
    Fact is, I won the case and got paid $39,500 damages, easily verified by the IP Australia trademarks database (yes do a search on the trademark Snakebuster!), and yet as fast as anyone corrects the lie on wikipedia, the trolls come back and post what they know to be false.
    Your later claims in the post are obviously either heavily biased or uneducated, but noting that you are using a website created by a business rival and replete with deliberate lies, I am not surprised.
    Your comments attacking our handling methods are particularly despicable, and I note that the site you source your mis- “information” on devenomized snakes markets snake tongs, which as the most brutalmeans devised to handle, torture and kill snakes and are highly illegal in all Australian and most US states for the purposes of reptile handling.
    Our stick-free handling of snakes is the only humane way to handle snakes, as opposed to the brutally cruel use of snake tongs you clearly endorse in your comments and unfortunately appears on too many TV shows, which breaks snakes bones and the like.
    We treat and handle our snakes with care and this sends the message to kids that all snakes should be treated thus.
    Your alternative view is clearly that smashing venomous snakes about with sticks is OK!
    To claim we are breaking various rules and regulations with devenomized snakes is also false and defmatory.
    We have a copy of legal statements from the DSE and VGS arising from an investigation into our devenomized snakes (2004-2006) that found that there have been no legal breaches in terms of the operation in spite of claims by rivals unable to source the said snakes from us.
    Finally, just last week in front of an audience of over 300 people, I was filmed being bitten by all the venomoids (nearly 40 snakes) and clearly as of that date (about 7 years post operation), none had regerated a drop of venom, (or else I’d have died … bitten by world’s top five deadliest many times – at same time).
    Hence your final statements about potential lethal bites involving children are totally scandalous and fear mongering.
    (By the way, the challenge had been made to prove once and for all, that the snakes do not regenerate venom).
    For the record, and as a result of our superior live reptile shows in Victoria, which dominate in our home state, not one child has died from Snakebite in Victoria in the last ten years.
    Our company has made Victoria go from being the highest death from snakebite state to the lowest, and fear mongering by yourself on the topic of devenomized snakes and rehashing of long disproven false claims about regeneration of venom and the like do not help anyone.
    Fact is, at our reptile shows, we show kids venomous snakes and tell them not to handle them. We freely disclose they are devenomized and explain the main advantage being that we don’t have to inflict cruelty on the snakes by forced restriant and stick handling.
    Fact is, we are alone in breeding many species of deadly snake because ours alone aren’t stressed to death in fear of their keeper attacking them with sticks every time the cage is opened.
    But like the corrupt VCAT Judge Anne Coghlan, you may subscribe to her stated view that “the only good snake is a dead snake”, and on that basis, we shall have to agree to disagree.
    All the best
    Snakeman Raymond Hoser

  7. Paul Gallagher says:

    Dear Snakeman,

    Thank-you for your calm, rational and on topic reply.

    It is with a deep sense of shame and self loathing I find myself scribing these words. You have indeed exposed me as the shallow and inept person I am, despite my unjustified confidence in cunning and exploitation.

    I appreciate you noting that my clumsy evidence based and referenced response, as opposed to your excellent Testimonial, is naught but peddling of “obvious lies and misinformation”. It is a habit I must strive to overcome. More so, it was quite reckless of me to refer to Victorian legislation, Inquiry’s and VCAT findings in formulating any conclusion. I can’t imagine what came over me or how I was so blind to this obvious corruption. Whilst we as Skeptics do find value in evidence, I – and no doubt others – will be shocked to read of an apparent conspiracy presented as refutation to one’s position. How I missed the obvious similarities between green martians and a flat Earth, to Victorian legislation and tribunal findings, is a crushing embarrassment, now revealed to all as a gaping maw in my cognition.

    Having worked in the health sector, I am also truly grateful to now be armed with the knowledge that ripping out a snakes venom glands with grubby equipment, can be likened to abortion, heart surgery or the particularly common procedure of castration. Upon realising my appalling conduct in reply to you I suffered numerous panic attacks and now feel confident of exploratory cardiac surgery at my mate Thommo’s place. He is a whizz with cars, has lots of shiny equipment and even a tiny little bed on wheels that I can be zoomed about upon. Should any corrupt officials turn up, I can be sequestered under his car.

    You have opened my eyes to VCAT Judge Anne Coghlan, who seems a truly repulsive person following the letter of the law, consulting legal experts and weighing bipartisan evidence in a fair and just manner. Of course, I unequivocally accept your unreferenced claim that VCAT cases are not only rigged, but the horrid and corrupt judges seem to have spent years planning for the horror of Black Saturday, by “denying any risk of fire to homes”. No doubt they always knew unprecedented weather conditions would ensue, senior emergency service personnel would fail to execute their duties and probably delighted in the knowledge countless snakes would vaporise also…, but I diverge.

    I note one Raymond Hoser – whom I mentioned in my earlier comment – lost his battle at VCAT, advancing similar claims as yours, Snakeman. In reading a news report, it states that the horrid Peter Mirtschin once removed a king brown snakes infected eye, only to discover three years later when it was euthanised that it had regrown behind the eye socket.

    Clearly as this differs from your account, the corrupt Mirtschin, who merely “runs Australia’s largest venom supply business”, was in league with the corrupt Judge, Anne Coghlan. Reading Hoser’s brilliant opinionated hearsay and unreferenced submission clearly proves there was a conspiracy plot against him.

    Re, your query on believing a corrupt and dishonest judge against the rather shy pronouncements of your undoubted brilliance as Snakeman. You will be delighted to know, as always, I shall go with the evidence.

    Of course, you got me here: I am not a veterinarian having mere post graduate qualifications in human health, neurology, and high impact trauma rehabilitation amongst others and only 20 odd years experience applying such frivolous hobbies. Useless skills that are of no use to me at Thommo’s backyard surgery. Whilst I stupidly only access evidenced based or original source material – a folly you have helped me realise, I did visit Dr. Google and typed in “bitten by a devenomized snake”. It suggested I may have Sepsis or septicaemia which, if left untreated, effects cerebral blood flow, induces bacterial meningitis, may induce cerebral hypoxia and alter cognition. This blood disease may help explain your superior grasp of facts and uncanny ability to spot conspiracies and corruption where fools such as I have not.

    I appreciate you sharing your financial details on the internet. $39,500 is quite a lot of money to be awarded. Thommo and I once won a medium sized can of baked beans in ham sauce and an incomplete plastic set of the Three Wise Men for singing Advance Australia Fair, to the tune of Black Betty whilst Irish dancing Michael Flatley style at the local school fete. They didn’t have any snakes there, ridiculously citing concern for children’s safety but did have rather vicious looking bunny rabbits and kittens that were handled by the kids. I don’t know what I’d do with over 39 grand but perhaps anger management classes or a short course in civil law might be of value in improving my many shortcomings.

    I must also accept your proposed mantle of “despicable” in acquainting myself with my many flaws. Whilst the RSPCA still allow the use of snake tongs, I shall defer to your quite fair extrapolation. Namely that I “clearly endorse” this illegal means “to torture and kill snakes”. This is quite plain as I mentioned snake tongs a total of Zero times in my reply. As you point out in your closing comments I may subscribe to the view that “the only good snake is a dead snake”, which is stridently backed by my thoughtless and brutal reference to The Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals Act, 1986. My pathological hatred of snakes is further reinforced by noting the Act was amended in 2007 to include devenomization as practised by the aforementioned Raymond Hoser.

    It was utterly unacceptable of me to refer to State Government regulations to suggest you, or this Hoser chap, may be breaking them by doing what they prohibit. Equally so, to refer to a veterinary site that advises against desensitising children to venomous snakes. I was unaware you had single handedly altered Victoria’s fatality rate from snakebite from the highest to the lowest. That this figure includes mostly adults, not children, is no doubt another conspiracy that corrupt and successful competitors in league with authorities have launched against you.

    To my sheer terror and eternal regret you have pointed out that referencing published, evidence based material in forming a conclusion may be defamatory. I have been awake all night pacing back and forth, and forth and back. I fear you may know, or know of, one Raymond Hoser, author of the discarded submission to the Victorian Inquiry into environmental regulation. Noting the height of opinionated claims in this excellent submission I am tempted to imitate ex-David Jones boss, Mark McInnes and beg for mercy via text message. However, this would of course be used against me as evidence of guilt.

    Perhaps we could settle out of court. I have a medium sized can of baked beans in ham sauce and two of the Three Wise Men in excellent condition. I’ll need to clear it with Thommo but as he’ll be demanding up-front payment for my backyard exploratory cardiac surgery I reckon I’m in with a chance.

    In closing, I must thank-you for helping me see the errors of my ways and the multiple flaws in my personality. Despite your reluctance to promote your skills it seems you have many, and would make an ideal Life Coach. Already I have thrown away my BBQ sausage tongs lest they have a subliminal effect and prompt a relapse into my now prior ways of wickedness.

    Yours in gratitude,

    Paul.

  8. Snakeman says:

    Paul, your prose above I have read and can offer little more comments save for four points I wish to mention.
    1 – In September 2008, VCAT judge Anne Coghlan stated I was “delusional to assert that there was a risk that dozens of Victorians could possibly die in a bushfire disaster”, going on to assert she had full confidence in the DSE’s abilities to manage any potential bushfire issues and that they were diligent in preventing any such disaster from occuring. History spoke for itself less than 6 months later on Black Saturday.
    2 – VCAT had previously ruled preventing us from removing 7 hazardous pine trees about 5 years ago from our property (supporting the Manningham City Council and the DSE). This and dozens of other VCAT and Victorian court rulings were overturned following the Black Saturday disaster, with the enforcement of a new 10/30 rule by the State Government. Those pine trees have been removed since, and I mention this to show that VCAT judges do not act rationally on many occasions … they are humans…
    It is a pity it took over 100 avoidable deaths to force a government and their appointed judges to act sanely.
    3 – Our venomoid snakes were devenomized BEFORE the laws were changed in 2007 to prevent the procedure.
    As such, the laws have adversely affected our business rivals more than us in that they cannot procure the said snakes within Victoria and our commercial and safety advantages are retained.
    Hence our venomoid procedures were not illegal as you have asserted more than once on this forum.
    For what it’s worth, most of what I do daily for work is for most people highly illegal. In my case I have various permits and bits of paper allowing it.
    If an unlicenced person goes out and catches a snake, jail is a potential penalty. I have been a licenced snake catcher for decades!
    4- Non-venomous and snakes that are devenomized are not cesspits of zoonoses as you have claimed and generally untreated bites as a rule heal without treatment or complication.
    Most snake charmers including myself do not as a rule bother treating non-venomous snakebites and we are not dropping dead like flies or suffering other ill effects.
    In terms of myself, I can tell you any insanity I may have is pre-existing to and separate from side affects from bites from non-venomous snakes during our snake shows.
    All the best
    Snakeman

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