Laps around Homecoming bonfire to be limited following safety concerns

by Abigail Mihaly | 10/9/18 3:00am

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by Michael Lin / The Dartmouth

Members of the Class of 2022 will have to find a new source of exercise during Homecoming this year. The College is “truly on probation,” according to associate professor of engineering Douglas Van Citters; bonfire and surrounding festivities have been redesigned to respond to safety concerns after the town of Hanover denied the College’s permit request in late May. Following changes, the permit was approved on Sept. 28.

Town manager Julia Griffin said the town’s initial denial of the permit stemmed from its frustration over a mounting unsafe atmosphere as students tried to touch the fire, despite added College safety measures.

“In recent years, [the Homecoming fire tradition] has gotten more incendiary — it seems more angry and has more of a potential for violence,” Griffin said, adding that the Hanover Police department was concerned “with the potential for riot.”

This year’s approved permit specifies that students may not run around the fire. Van Citters, who serves as chair of the working group commissioned by the College to make recommendations regarding the fire’s new design, said students will instead come in and march around the fire as a class, after which students can take pictures and enjoy the fire in a safer way.

“We consider this an extraordinary success, that we’re able to have a bonfire at all,” he added.

“If these innovations don’t remove the risk, that’s it,” Griffin said. “It just can’t continue like this.”

According to Van Citters, the bonfire will stand 28 feet tall rather than 33 and will use the same amount of wood, but the top of the bonfire will have a different aspect ratio than in years past in order to increase the likelihood it will collapse inward in a worst-case scenario. The construction techniques will be the same.

“Very few people are going to be able to actually recognize the difference aesthetically,” Van Citters said.

There will still be steel event fencing, as per request of the town and recommendation of the fire chief, who decides the size of the safe-zone. First year students will still be able to access the inner viewing area next to the fire, he said.

The fire engines, the Hanover Police Department and Green Mountain Safety will work in conjunction with Dartmouth’s Safety and Security, according to interim director of Dartmouth Safety and Security Keysi Montás.

The newly designed event will include a large tent on the Green with a band and food, as well as speeches, which were previously delivered on the steps of Dartmouth Hall, according to Van Citters.

He explained that the committee that was charged with the redesign began their work by taking a critical look at the fundamental culture of the weekend. They worked to maintain the important aspects, while “reign[ing] in a little bit of the unsafe behavior that’s crept into [the Homecoming tradition].”

Van Citters said the core culture of the event was one of celebration and community, and that the new design will emphasize these values.

“What I think most of the attendees will see, is an event that is even more community oriented,” he said.

Reshma Rajasingh ’22, however, is disappointed she won’t be able to partake in the tradition of running around the fire.

“A big part of coming to Dartmouth is how heavily traditions are valued here, so it sucks being the first class not being able to be part of [the tradition],” she said.

Maddy Omrod ’19 said running around the fire was one of the first moments she felt she belonged here.

“[Freshman fall is a] really hard term, and for me, running around that fire and looking at all my classmates was the one moment where I was like holy sh—­ I’m at Dartmouth. I’m actually here, and I actually want to be here, and I’m part of something bigger than myself,” she said. “I really want the ’22s to get that, and it makes me sad that they won’t.”

Griffin noted that she didn’t want the town to be “party to something that’s risky,” adding that “we’d much rather be criticized for being nervous Nellies than be criticized for someone getting killed.”

Griffin said Fire Chief Marty McMillen has expressed concern for years regarding the fire’s tendency to collapse outward. Each log weighs 70 to 80 pounds and would be deadly if it were to fall on anyone from any height, even if it were not on fire.

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis noted that students who run inside the collapse zone in order to attempt to touch the fire put themselves and safety officers in danger.

Dennis said that both he and the fire chief, both of whom arrived in 2014, have had concerns about the bonfire since their arrival.

“It doesn’t make reasonable sense in a lot of ways, if you ask most people,” he said. Dennis added that he had an outside perspective coming to Hanover and recognized the danger with “outside eyes that haven’t been here for years and years.”

Leah Ryu ’22 said some members of her class are talking about protesting the change by refusing to show up to the event.

“People are really mad about it,” Ryu said, adding that her upperclassmen friends have told her to run around and touch the fire. Some have even offered to pay her bail.

Griffin noted she was frustrated by negative interactions between Hanover Police and students, and expressed that the negative homecoming traditions put firefighters and police in as much danger as students.

Montás said that people have been hurt, and some have even been taken to a burn unit in Boston in previous years.

“It is a raging fire. It is extremely hot,” he said.

Dennis added that the “hazing, or the pressure put on first-year students to go in and [touch the fire] by upperclassman,” adds to the danger of the situation.

Rajasingh said she believes members of her class will still attempt to run around and touch the fire.

“People have done everything they’ve been told not to do,” she said, noting that people in past years have touched the fire despite facing fines and suspension.

Montás said that in past years, those that have touched the fire have faced suspension up to one year.

“I think the College has done a good job of trying to put some parameters in place to make it a safer event, reduce some of those risky behaviors that are maybe causing some of those issues, and kind of redefine that focus in creating an environment that will be safe for all to enjoy,” Dennis said.

Griffin echoed this sentiment, saying she was “impressed” by the amount of work done by the committee.

“Hats off to the College and a committee that worked hard all summer, and fingers crossed that it goes much more smoothly from a safety standpoint,” she said.

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