Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2018.

'A Super Terrible Idea'

As Elon Musk’s flamethrowers draw criticism, the company argues the devices are designed to be “thrilling without danger”


February was arguably the best of times and the worst of times for Elon Musk, the high-profile entrepreneur responsible for Tesla, SpaceX, and a host of other ventures.

Early in the month, Musk enjoyed a wildly successful SpaceX launch that set his Tesla Roadster on an interplanetary orbit. At the same time, he was incurring the wrath of safety advocates who were not amused by the launch of another Musk product: a flamethrower sold to consumers for $500 a pop to raise money for The Boring Company, a tunneling business. The firm made headlines when it sold 20,000 of the devices in just four days, drawing heated criticism from some in wildfire-ravaged California. The company, on the other hand, says the criticism is misguided because there are more dangerous products widely available online.

Leading the charge against The Boring Company’s devices, which emit a roughly two-foot-long blue-orange flame, has been Miguel Santiago, a Democratic assemblyman representing parts of Los Angeles, who said he intends to pursue a ban on the product. “If this is real, I’m outraged and you should be too,” Santiago tweeted on January 29. “If this is a joke, then it’s a terribly insensitive one given that we’re coming off of the worst wildfire season in history. Either way: NOT FUNNY. NOT GONNA HAPPEN.”

In an interview with CBS Los Angeles, Orange County Fire Authority Captain Larry Kurtz also said the product was a bad idea. “Unfortunately accidents do happen and with a product that’s so easily transportable and creates a two-foot length flame, it’s only a matter of time until we really have a tragedy that’s going to unfold here,” he said.

California experienced its deadliest wildfires ever in October, when a series of blazes tore through wine country, killing 44 people and razing thousands of homes. NFPA Journal reported on the fires in “Nowhere to Hide” in the November/December issue, and again in “Build. Burn. Repeat?” in the January/February issue.

On Twitter, Santiago’s tweet didn’t find much support. “It’s just a giant blowtorch and it meets all standards,” one person said. Another commented, “It’s not even a flamethrower by any reasonable definition. A flamethrower shoots a flammable liquid at extended distances. This is just a propane torch that shoots a couple feet and will hurt absolutely no one. You can buy far more dangerous things at your neighborhood Wal-Mart.” According to California law, The Boring Company’s devices aren’t technically flamethrowers, which the law defines as devices that can propel a burning stream of flammable liquid at least 10 feet.

A Boring Company spokesman shared similar sentiments in an email to NFPA Journal. “The Boring Company flamethrower is safer than what you can buy right now off the shelf on Amazon to destroy weeds,” the spokesman said. “Much like a rollercoaster, this is designed to be thrilling without danger and everyone who purchased one will also receive a complimentary Boring fire extinguisher.”

Flamethrowers are legal in every state except California and Maryland, which bans what it calls “flamethrowers” without offering a definition of such devices. In fact, companies like Ion Productions Team in Arizona—a state that’s also prone to wildfires—sell devices that can shoot a flame up to 30 feet. Ion’s CEO, Chris Byars, even belittled the Musk product in an interview with USA Today, calling it “basically the starter torch for ours.”

The debate over The Boring Company’s flamethrowers didn’t seem to trouble Musk, who was busy having fun with the new product as it went on sale. “Don’t do this,” he wrote alongside an Instagram video of himself running flame-first toward the camera with one of the devices. “Also, I want to be clear that a flamethrower is a super terrible idea. Definitely don’t buy one. Unless you like fun.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Photograph: The Boring Company