Benjamin Colclough was the first student in line to walk across a bed of hot coals in order to earn his certificate in the art of fire-walking.
“It was like walking on really, really hot coals,” said the freshman international affairs major from Athens. “I don’t know how to explain this but, you don’t feel anything until you get to the end and then it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m walking on really hot coals.’”
The fire-walking event was hosted by the physics and astronomy department Thursday evening. Almost 180 release forms were signed as student filed across a small glowing patch of incinerated firewood. Each person across received a paper certificate signed by the head of the department head William Dennis.
“I’ve never known anyone to trip during a fire-walk,” said John Campbell, “People always say, ‘Well what happens if someone falls?’ Well, they’re not going to lie there are they? The only danger we had one time was they excessively wetted around it and it got muddy and slippery.”
Campbell, a retired physics research associate from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has put on 50 fire walks in his home country and has also hosted three at the University of Georgia in previous years, the most recent being in 2005.
He gave a lecture before the event to explain the science behind fire-walking.
“The bottom line is we don’t want our living tissue to get to a temperature at which it’s going to be damaged,” Campbell said. “What’s that temperature?”
He said it had to be somewhere between the temperature in a Jacuzzi and the water that comes out of the faucet hot enough to burn — so, 55 degrees Celsius.
Campbell went on to explain how the thermo conductivity of burnt wood allowed people to walk across because only the first few layers of atoms are hot enough to burn and the inside is relatively cooler. Cool enough to walk on if you don’t take too long.
“When you walk, just a normal pace, you’ve only got one foot down at a time. And that’s in contact with the ground for about a second,” Campbell said. “You’ve got a second of contact time before you’re definitely getting up into damage reason [when fire walking]. A standard fire-walk is just four paces — about three meters, three yards long. You can do them longer, but you tend to travel faster.”
Campbell used humor, and one particularly well-received joke about the demise of Joan of Ark, to lighten a situation that could have made people nervous — although most students seemed ready to go.
“[The lecture] didn’t make me feel any better or worse,” said Megan Williams, a senior biology major from Tampa. “I was pretty set on doing it anyway.”
Campbell crossed the coals first, as a demonstration, holding a sign which read, "It's just physics folks!"
The fire was built in a patch of dirt in front of the geology building — the grass was removed in squares and set to the side to be replaced later and the ground soaked for several days — under the supervision of the fire department and Mike Hale, a fire safety inspector for the University of Georgia.
“They knew what they were doing, they’ve done these before, and kind of the protocol has always just been that while they’re doing the burn we try to get the fire department to come by and stand by,” Hale said.
Campbell spent part of his lecture criticizing those people who try to use fire-walking seminars as a sort of over-priced, self-confidence seminar — he called them charlatans — because he said the art and science of fire-walking were quite simple.
“I’m a charlatan myself because I’ve wasted all this time of yours talking about science," he said. “Fire-walking is just common sense.”