Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Hazards of Fire Walking (or Lack Thereof)

In the spirit of my last post speculating on species such as the white sturgeon as the source of lake monster sightings, here's another one along the same looks-supernatural-but-isn't vein. Two weeks ago a story hit the news that 21 people had suffered burns on their feet after attending one of Anthony Robbins' famous fire walks. The media treated the story as proof that fire walking is dangerous, but in fact it is far less so than one would think. To keep the story in perspective, six thousand people participated in this particular firewalk. That means your chance of getting burned at such an event is only .35 percent, or one person in about 287. The initial story reported "second and third degree burns," but in fact that turned out to be an exaggeration on the part of the original reporter on the scene. Some of the 21 burned participants developed blisters, which marks a burn as second degree, but that was about the extent of it.

It appears the debacle started with a report in a local paper, the San Jose Mercury News, which stated that 21 participants suffered second- or third-degree burns at the event and quoted a young college student who was passing by at 11 p.m. at night and was shocked by the sight of 6,000 people chanting, yelling, and firewalking. He claimed it was a "horrific" scene and he heard "wails of pain, screams of agony."

Those who participated said the young man must not have realized that seminar participants are encouraged to yell and scream to psyche themselves up and they were not all screaming in physical pain. The article in the San Jose Mercury News was taken at face value, and like a bad case of telephone gossip, repeated and embellished across various media outlets around the world with even more severe and shocking titles to grab people's attention. Fox News took the liberty of stretching the truth farther by reporting a "hot coal catastrophe," stating that people had been hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns, which then became quickly duplicated by others in the media. According to the medical professionals on site, while several participants received minor burns and blistering and received medical attention on site or afterward, these exaggerated reports apparently became the basis of a story then told around the world.

Dr. Bart Rademaker, M.D., a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who was a member of the on site medical team, said he was incredulous about the misleading news coverage. "I am shocked to hear all the untruths and misrepresentations made in the media and on the Web over the last few days. I was present when 6,000 participants voluntarily did a fire walk, and the claims that people were wailing after sustaining severe burns to the feet is completely untrue, nor were dozens of participants admitted to the hospital!"

The interesting thing about fire walking from a paranormal perspective is in fact how safe it is, though this is not due to any sort of supernatural power on the part of the participants. Fire walking is relatively safe because the ash that forms on top of the coals is a poor heat conductor and sloughs off onto the participants' feet as they cross the bed. In fact, it's a classic conquer-your-fear challenge. The coals radiate heat and glow like flames, both of which send signals to your brain that they should be feared. But in reality, just about the only way to get burned is to hesitate while crossing, or worst of all to stop moving. The heat can only build up on your feet if you linger too long in one place, so if you can walk across the coals evenly and with confidence you won't be injured. The fear in this particular case is merely an assumption, and I might add one that convinced the initial reporter to imagine that there was no way the scene could be anything but "horrific."

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Anonymous said...

There was even a Mythbusters on this. They all walked the coals, no one got hurt.

Scott Stenwick said...

Yes, it's much easier that it looks. You can even see the ash layer in the picture accompanying the article. It's the dark bluish stuff on top of the coals. The whole trick is to not step down too hard and make sure you don't stop or hesitate.