You’ve seen the unbelievable footage of Jamie O’Brien surfing one of the most dangerous waves in the world while lit on fire. But you don’t know the backstory—the harrowing details that went into this epic shoot on the island of Tahiti. Now, it’s time to learn what really went down with the surfer on fire and how it all almost blew up in smoke. O’Brien’s attempt to ride Teahupo’o, the world’s scariest wave, while being a human torch wasn’t as seamless as it looked.
The highly anticipated seventh episode of O’Brien’s popular web series, Who Is JOB 5.0—which airs Friday, August 7 on Red Bull TV—offers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how this sizzling mastery was pulled off, and the many complications that nearly rendered the feat impossible. The latest episode showcases the astonishing details and raw, candid footage you won’t find anywhere else.
Under a cloak of secrecy, the team prepped for a year prior to their arrival in Tahiti, including multiple fire tests on land and in water in California and Hawaii to see how O’Brien would react to being lit on fire. The groundwork also included developing the many layers of protection that O’Brien would wear. His wetsuit was a custom Body Glove design that had to be engineered to relocate the life-saving inflatable airbags often worn by risk-taking big-wave surfers so it could accommodate the flames.
“It’s one thing being lit on fire in a controlled environment, but it’s quite another being lit on fire in the ocean, where you have to deal with things like wind, finding the perfect wave, and knowing how the fuel will react to the humidity,” O’Brien says. “Plus, I’m not sure what I was more scared of: the fire or the reef combined with such a large swell. Both could cause me permanent damage.”
Hollywood stunt coordinator Riley Harper and a crew of nearly 25 people arrived days early to test the procedures and run through every perilous move. The first obstacle to fiery success? Finding the right fuel combination on a remote French Polynesian island. “There were certain types of fuel we needed, but we quickly realized the fuel in Tahiti was just not the same as what we have in L.A.,” explains Harper. “For me and my fire team, we had to start from scratch to create a new type of fuel mixture and do a lot of our own tests out here.”
Once O’Brien arrived, they practiced lighting him on fire while he stepped off the jet ski onto his surfboard—not an easy task—before he even attempted to ride the monstrous wave. Typically when step-off surfing into enormous waves, there are only two people on the jet ski. But in this case, they needed an extra person on the jet ski to fuel and ignite O’Brien, so they had to practice the step-off with additional weight of the third person. To complicate matters even more, on the first few attempts, the wake from the jet ski extinguished the flame, and they had to start the entire process over.
A thousand different things could go wrong—and many of them did. Like the power outage on part of the island that forced camera editors to work off of generators or the break-in in O’Brien’s hotel room that led to the theft of his passport and his laptop containing the only copy of much of the GoPro footage from his burning ride.
“There were a couple of points were I was like, this isn’t going to happen,” O’Brien says. “But once we finally pulled it off, it wasn’t just me celebrating, it was all of us. It took an entire team to pull this off.”
They had to coordinate the extensive team of camera crews and safety patrol on jet skis and boats amidst a massive swell that also happened to draw big-wave storm chasers from all over the world. “It was a relief once it actually happened because there were all these elements we had to deal with—wind, the ocean, separate boats, and so many moving parts,” adds Harper. “The hardest part was getting everyone in sync together.”
This was no simple task, yet miraculously—and despite unseen forces that seemed to conspire against O’Brien’s outrageous vision—it all came together in one blazingly hot moment. To watch the entire behind-the-scenes episode tune-in to episode 7 of Who Is JOB 5.0 :