=Section I: the basics.=
Everyone has a fuel they use and prefer. In the US and Canada, we are pretty sure what’s in them, too, but when you travel, different fuels take on different names, and things can get confusing. So, knowing as much as you can about fuels can help you find what you need when travelling, and make you a safer performer in general.
The most common question is: what is the safest fuel? The answer is none of them. Isopropyl alcohol burns clean, but has a low flash point. Petrol fuels ALL burn with soot and some exotic toxins (some more than others). Even a fuel as theoretically pure as biodeisel can burn you with sulphuric acid residue, blind you with methanol, or slick up your dance floor with french fry smelling goo.
So, what’s the difference? Let’s start with the “Flash Point.” Any fuel with a [[Flash_Point]] below room temperature (or thereabouts) will ignite directly from a liquid state. These are called “low” flash point fuels, anything with a flash point above room temp are called “high” flash point fuels. You find the flash point on the fuel’s MSDS and you can find some of those in the NAFAA library.
What does this mean? ‘Low’ flash point fuels like White Gas/Coleman’s Fuel/[[Naphtha]] or Gasoline will burn on your arm, the floor, in your mouth, on ice, or on top of a moving river. “High” flash point fuels need a little coaxing to burn: they need high surface area materials (like feathers, wicks or fur), heat, or a change in pressure to produce enough vapors to ignite.
The difference: because white gas (or other low flash fuels) will burn at almost any time, they’re necessary for certain tricks: the ‘Back To the Future’ tracks that poi spinners like, the entire art of contact fire, all the cool parts of fire eating, and anything that involves the rapid ignition of a wick. Higher flash point fuels are generally slower to ignite and won’t do those sorts of tricks.
On the other hand, the same long chain carbons that make high flash point fuels “high” are the same things that make them burn longer. Lamp Oil and Kero pack a lot more burnable material into the same space so they tend to burn upwards of 100% longer on certain wicks. The down side to this is the exotic products that can be produced by partial burns at the molecular level (which almost invariably happen).
Results: Because low flash point fuels can burn anytime, they will burn where you don’t want them to: when you bump yourself with a fresh wick, or when someone flicks a cigarette in your fuel can. Because high flash point fuels can’t burn from liquid, they often don’t burn when you don’t want them to: typically your clothes and skin won’t burn if you bump yourself with a fresh wick, and you can usually put out your burning wicks in the liquid fuel.
Safety: Notice the language up there? White gas always reacts about the same way: easy to ignite, burns on anything, etc. However, the high flash point fuels get into greyer language: ‘usually won’t’; ‘typically’; ‘sometimes’. And this is the crux of the debate.
The people that prefer white gas like the comfort of knowing that if you learn how to treat the fuel with respect, you will know how to handle it at all times. They feel that the other fuels can lull users into a false sense of security, placing them in positions of unsafe actions (like putting your wicks out in open fuel). Also, the down sides to not igniting easily (smokey burn, oily residue on performance area, etc) far outweigh the extra precautions needed for their preferred fuels.
The people who prefer kero and lamp oil believe that if you don’t really need the more volatile fuels, why have them? They would rather use a fuel that doesn’t immediately set them on fire in the case of an accident, and one that doesn’t produce ignitable fumes if you leave your wicks soaking in a paint can.
Which is safer? Neither: fire performance isn’t safe. Which is better? None: the perfect fuel that burns the color you want, for hours on end, and only where you tell it to, has not been invented. Which should you use? It depends on what you want to do and what you’re willing to put up with.