Hanover Demands Safety Changes to Homecoming Bonfire at Dartmouth College

  • Christian Murray, left, a freshman at Dartmouth College, and Cam Wright, also a freshman, pull wooden pallets onto a structure they are helping build for an annual homecoming bonfire on Friday, Oct. 5, 2017, at the college in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/25/2018 1:58:11 PM
Modified: 6/25/2018 11:41:57 PM

Hanover — Hanover town officials say they will not issue a permit to Dartmouth College for its annual homecoming bonfire this fall unless major changes are made to make it safer.

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said a student tradition of attempting to touch the bonfire played into the town’s decision. Other issues with the fire are its height and its “potentially deadly” risk of outward collapse, Griffin wrote in a letter to college staff last month.

“While we can appreciate the pressure the college will be under to continue the event in its current format, we think it is time the college steps up to provide a safer and more positively celebratory event for all concerned,” Griffin wrote. “The homecoming bonfire, as currently configured, is not the sort of example we feel we can condone, much less permit.”

The bonfire, which is held on the Dartmouth Green, requires an outdoor activities permit from the town.

Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence called the town’s safety concerns “very reasonable,” and said the college has put together a working group to study alternatives for the bonfire, with a focus on the size and shape.

“Dartmouth respects ... the desire on the town’s part to keep us safe,” Lawrence said. “We are committed to working together as a community to find a solution that honors our homecoming tradition and satisfies the safety concerns of the town.”

The college’s working group is chaired by assistant professor of engineering Doug Van Citters, and it will include representation from faculty, staff, students and alumni.

“The working group will consult with students and experts to produce a report in early August with recommendations for President Phil Hanlon and his senior leadership group, who will then work to finalize a new plan with the town,” Lawrence said.

The classic Dartmouth homecoming bonfire stands about 35 feet tall and is constructed using large, heavy timbers and pallets. The fire is then doused with diesel fuel.

Last year, a 6-foot-tall fence was erected around the fire’s collapse zone to prevent people from getting crushed if the fire were to collapse outward.

Though it wasn’t specifically designed to, the fence didn’t stop some Dartmouth students from charging at the fire to touch it as part of a tradition. At least one video shows a student jumping over the fence like a “gazelle,” Griffin said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis said three students were charged with disorderly conduct in 2017 for attempting to touch the fire.

In 2016, police charged one person with the same offense. However, more than 50 people tried to rush the fire that year, making it one of the worst years on record, Dennis recalled.

In order to be considered for a permit, Griffin said, the college must reduce the height of the bonfire and change its shape to prevent the structure from collapsing outward.

Town officials suggested a “mounded” shape, much like that of a typical brush pile.

“In that case, students could more safely attempt to touch the fire and the town would not staff the interior collapse zone to prevent such student behavior,” Griffin said, adding that police and fire officials would no longer try and stop those individuals.

Having police and fire officials step in and block those students pits town staff against an “angry assembly of students and alumni,” many of whom are intoxicated, Griffin said in her letter.

“Why should we seek to provide fire and police protection for an event which is simply not respectful or safe?” she wrote.

Instead, police and fire would stay “well off” the Green and only stage nearby in case of emergency, leaving the role of policing the bonfire up to the college, Griffin said.

Hanover Fire Chief Martin McMillan said the town doesn’t want to get rid of the bonfire, but safety must take precedence.

The fire Dartmouth typically constructs is akin to building a log cabin, and it is an engineered structure that came after a 1999 tragedy at Texas A&M University, where a bonfire collapsed during construction, killing 12 people, McMillan said.

Dartmouth’s fire is supposed to collapse inward, but certain variables, like wind, could alter that.

If people are rushing the fire and it collapses, “they will get crushed,” McMillan said.

“This is a risk management issue,” he said. “We don’t want to see somebody get hurt.”

Regardless of a redesign, one thing about the bonfire this year won’t be the same. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services ruled that dumping diesel fuel on the fire is not legal and must stop, Griffin wrote in her memo.

At least one current Dartmouth College student questioned the town’s reasoning for wanting to deny the permit.

Class of 2020 member Alex Paget acknowledged that there were issues with dozens of people running up and trying to touch the fire in 2016, but said that the situation wasn’t half as bad in 2017.

He said he thinks the perimeter fence helped.

“We want to keep the tradition going,” Paget said. “We, or many of us, don’t believe that the town refusing to issue the permit is at all justified.”

Meanwhile, at least two members of the Class of 2021, Christian Murray and Cameron Wright, said they feel college and town officials can come up with a compromise that addresses safety concerns and keeps the impressive bonfire burning.

“Part of what makes the event so amazing to experience is the scale of the fire; prior to homecoming, I don’t think that I had witnessed a fire that large,” said Murray, who, along with Wright, helped build the fire last year.

“I trust the committee will come to a solution that both parties find agreeable that hopefully does not diminish the size of the bonfire too dramatically,” Wright said.

The college usually seeks a permit for the fire in September, ahead of homecoming in October, Griffin said.

Lawrence, the college’s spokeswoman, said college staff met with town officials on June 12 and recently informed them that Dartmouth had put together a working group.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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