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Injuries rare, says veteran fire performer

Thom Britteating fire during his one man 'Freak Show Tell' performance No Exit Theater Friday January 25 2012 Chicago. |

Thom Britton eating fire, during his one man "Freak Show and Tell" performance, at the No Exit Theater on Friday, January 25, 2012, in Chicago. | Chandler West~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 7, 2013 6:40AM

Chicago-based performer Thom Britton has played with fire for nearly a quarter-century.

He has eaten it, spun it, spit it and juggled it in such diverse settings as outdoor fairs and the stage of Lyric Opera. He also has taught dozens of people to do likewise.

And in all that time he has neither sustained nor witnessed any injury “beyond what a smoker would get handling a cigar.”

So when he got news — via text message from a friend in the audience — that fire-breathing stilt-walker Wesley Daniel was engulfed in flames and badly burned during a dress rehearsal Monday afternoon, he was jolted and concerned but knew it was an anomaly.

In a professional setting such a Lyric, he says, “a soprano being struck by lightning onstage has better odds [of happening] than a fire eater being hurt.”

When Britton performed a variety of fire stunts during Lyric’s 2009 production of “Pagliacci,” he marveled at the top-notch support team.

“I have never worked with a more professional house,” he says. “Everything I asked for, they said ‘yes.’ ”

From what he has seen, read and heard of Monday’s mishap, Britton says it appears as though Daniel and his fire safety team did everything right.

“I couldn’t have done it better, honestly.”

When such an incident occurs, Britton explains, the affected performer has only a couple of seconds to assess his situation rationally and react. Then he must give himself over to support personnel.

“You’re now a wild animal. You are unable to assess your own damage,” Britton says. “You may not even be hurt, but you’re not qualified [to decide]. You’re blinded. You have fire in your face. They take control of the situation and they put you out.”

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