Fire breather hopes to pass the torch

Jessica Lee

When Robert Camp was a child, he did not listen to his parents when they told him not to play with fire. Instead, he held a lighter up to the couch when no one was around just to see what would happen. The self-proclaimed “pyro” has since turned his fire-loving ways into something more socially acceptable: fire breathing.

Camp is not the only one who is happy that he managed to figure out a way to take something generally frowned upon and turn it into something worth smiling about. His parents are glad to see that their son is no longer pulling fire-related pranks such as dipping his fingers in rubber cement before lighting them on fire.

“The first time my parents saw me fire spin and breathe, they actually commended me on doing something productive with my pyromania,” Camp said.

It all started when Camp, a pre-nursing student at Austin Community College, moved into the 21st Street Co-op in 2009. He noticed someone practicing fire breathing and spinning outside and immediately took an interest in the hobby. Within a month, Camp was practicing the craft on his own.

Fire breathing involves spitting a mist of lamp oil or other non-volatile substance into the air before setting it on fire, creating a fireball. Before creating the first fireball of his own, Camp practiced spitting water in the air to make sure he had the technique correct. In order to avoid the flame burning a breather’s face, the fluid must be spit at a 45-degree angle.

“Honestly, you’ve got to have balls to do this,” Camp said.

Along with fire breathing, Camp also spins fire using a 6-foot contact staff. The ends of the staff are set on fire before Camp spins the staff in the air as well as allowing it to come into contact with his body.

“It is a matter of being consciously aware of what your body does and how the staff reacts,” Camp said. “It’s all physics.”

Recently, Camp has become weary of the ultra-pure lamp oil he is currently using as fuel. Though the lamp oil is non-volatile and is widely recommended by the fire breathing community, Camp worries about the effects it may have on his health.

He plans to start using food-based fuel, which includes everyday products such as cornstarch, non-dairy creamer and powdered sugar. These products do not become flammable until they are turned into an aerosol, which makes it safer than lamp oil and other fuels.

And if Camp makes the switch to food-based fuel, the cost will be dramatically cheaper. A bottle of lamp oil costs about $12. During a performance, Camp finds that he can go through an entire bottle. He keeps his practice time to a minimum to avoid making his hobby more costly than it needs to be.

Though fire breathing is a dangerous hobby to take up, Camp has always been cautious. He has never been seriously injured but knows people who have been. Their injuries are a reminder that if he is not careful, he could easily suffer an injury of his own.

But no matter the risk, Camp plans to continue to practice fire breathing until it is no longer fun for him.

“I just love fire,” Camp said. “It’s just a lot of fun to play with.”

When anthropology junior Amanda Bullwinkel first arrived at UT, she had heard about the fire breathing going on at the 21st Street Co-op but did not believe it until she saw it with her own eyes.

“Austin is this weird place,” Bullwinkel said. “But I definitely did not expect to go to a party and see someone spinning fire around like that.”

Camp plans to keep the fire breathing spirit alive at the 21st Street Co-op. At the moment, he is the only person there who knows the craft, and at 25, Camp plans to move out soon.

“I absolutely have to teach someone,” Camp said. “I can’t leave the co-op without teaching someone.”

Printed on Wednesday, November 2, 2011 as: Firing up 21st Street Co-op