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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Unique design, careful building ensure safe bonfire

What impresses Steve Erickson, assistant director of physical education and recreation, most about the bonfire is not the 35-foot height of the structure or the fact that it is built in only a few days -- although Erickson supervises that effort -- or even the moment when the fire collapses about 40 minutes after being lit, sending a stream of ash and sparks in to the air, beautifully lit by the flames below. It's the fact that it's all cleaned up by the next morning.

The process of moving the ash and rubble from the still-smoking ground involves a grounds crew working early on Saturday with a front-end loader and a special magnet that pulls up "buckets of hardware" from the ground, remnants of the pallets from local paper companies used as fill for the structure.

"That's the most impressive part of the process as far as I'm concerned," Erickson said enthusiastically.

The clean-up effort is just one part of the well-oiled physical and bureaucratic effort that creates a bonfire on the Green every year, an effort that -- apart from '06s building the fire -- often escapes students' notice completely.

The actual design for the bonfire comes from a professor at the Thayer Engineering School, according to both Erickson and popular legend. Erickson said that the design has been used at least since the 1970s and perhaps even longer.

The bonfire has 42 tiers of six inch by six inch rough cut hemlock or pine timbers of eight foot minimum length. There are 33 tiers for the base, shaped as a six-sided star, 22 tiers on the next level connecting the inside points of the star in to a hexagon, and seven tiers in a square shape on top.

The fire is, as many Dartmouth students have heard before, designed to collapse inward. Specifically, there is more heat in the center of the fire, so the points at which the tiers overlap each other that are closer to the center give out before the points on the star which are farther away.

The design has proved surprisingly effective. Erickson -- who has supervised the construction of the fire for the past six years -- could only remember once when the fire collapsed slightly to one side instead of straight down.

In 1999, the collapse of a bonfire under construction for the Homecoming of Texas A&M University killed 12 and injured 27 more. Erickson, without prompting, said, "It's worth noting that our structure has absolutely no similarity to that one that fell," either in design or construction.

The College brought in a engineering consulting company for a safety audit of the entire bonfire building process after the Texas A&M tragedy. The audit resulted in a number of significant changes in the way the bonfire was built.

The biggest change was the introduction of a lull, a type of forklift that raised timbers and fill up to students at the top of the structure, eliminating the need for students to haul timbers up by hand or climb on the frame of the structure at all.

The '06s who help build the fire will work in shifts based on their residence hall. Eight upper class supervisors will also be onsite, working in shifts.

Without a second thought, Director of Student Activites Kennedy named half a dozen departments who are involved in making the fire happen, including Safety and Security, Residential Life, Risk Management, Green Key and Conferences and Special Events.

Kennedy, who chairs the Homecoming committee along with Associate Dean of Student Life Joe Cassidy, said that the departments did the same thing each year and that Homecoming required very few meetings.

Sometimes the division of tasks seemed arbitrary, a product of a bureaucratic evolution of delegation rather than any central plan -- although seemingly still effective.

For example, the Athletic Department is responsible for buying the timbers for the fire, while the department of Facilities, Operations and Management is responsible for the plywood students write messages on, according to E.J. Kiefer, manager of the department of conferences and special events.

Safety and Security is one of the more visible departments involved in the bonfire. They watch the structure from Thursday night through the burning of the fire on Friday night.

This year, Safety and Security will deploy 14 officers in teams of two placed between the circling '06s and the structure itself, along with 18 other officers serving in different capacities that night, according to Safety and Security Sergeant Mark Lancaster, who oversees the department's presence at special events.

Safety and Security officers will be looking for intoxicated students and open containers as well as trying to prevent people from touching the burning structure on what Lancaster called a "hectic" night for the department.

Both Lancaster and Erickson stated that students had been arrested for touching the fire last year.

Lancaster said that students would be allowed between the lines 50 and 100 feet from the fire, but admitted that his officers would move farther and closer to the fire in response to the heat.