Town to College: Bonfire Changes Needed

Working group appointed to come up with safer alternatives to size, shape of bonfire.

Hanover officials have notified Dartmouth that the town will no longer issue an outdoor-activities permit for the annual homecoming bonfire, citing concerns that the three-story-tall structure could collapse and seriously injure those attending Dartmouth Night, which each fall brings thousands of people to the Green on homecoming weekend.

As a result, Dartmouth has appointed a working group charged with coming up with safer alternatives to the current size and shape of the bonfire, which has been used for at least the past decade. This working group will make a recommendation to President Phil Hanlon ’77 and his senior leadership group who will then work to finalize a new plan with the town.

“We respect the very reasonable concern and desire on the town’s part to keep us safe,” says Interim Provost David Kotz ’86. “We are committed to work together as a community to find a solution that honors our homecoming tradition and satisfies the safety concerns of the town.” 

Associate Professor of Engineering Douglas Van Citters ’99, Thayer ’03, ’06, will chair the working group. Kotz says Van Citters, who has helped build the bonfire and attends the event every year, will involve other engineers from Thayer School of Engineering in coming up with a recommendation on the size and shape of the next bonfire. 

The working group’s other members are Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs Elizabeth Agosto ’01; Vice President of Alumni Relations Cheryl Bascomb ’82; Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Ryan Hickox, who is also a house professor; Executive Director of Conferences and Events E.J. Kiefer; Interim Director of Safety and Security Keiselim Montás; and Associate Dean for Student Life Eric Ramsey. Also appointed will be at least two members of the class of ’20 and two alumni.

“We know how important it is to honor Dartmouth’s traditions and unique spirit, and we also understand that traditions have always and will continue to evolve,” says Bascomb. “Homecoming may look a little different in the future, but the enthusiasm for Dartmouth will be the same. The alumni and friends who return to celebrate will bring just as much spirit, energy, and love for Dartmouth to the Green.”

The town has said that it is no longer able to obtain municipal property and liability insurance to staff the bonfire. In addition, pitting police officers against students who try to touch the bonfire—an unsafe act that some students have attempted in recent years—puts law enforcement and the public in unnecessary danger during an event whose purpose is community-building. The College has suspended students who have touched the fire or have broken through security barriers in an attempt to do so.

“When it comes to safety, our community standards are uncompromising,” says Kotz. “We expect our students to behave responsibly and we will hold accountable anyone who does not.” 

Town officials have also informed the College that the state Department of Environmental Services has said that the use of more than 15 gallons of diesel fuel typically used to start the bonfire is illegal and must cease.

Kotz and others from the College have met with town officials to discuss how Dartmouth can make changes and continue to have a bonfire. 

While the current bonfire design has for many years been built according to strict safety standards and oversight, town officials suggest Dartmouth could build a bonfire that is smaller than the traditional structure, which stands about 35 feet tall. A 15-foot-tall bonfire would not need a town permit, they say. 

They have also suggested building a structure that is cone-shaped and would collapse in on itself.

Kotz says the working group will consult with experts as they come up with recommendations on how the College can move forward this fall. He said he expects to have a report from the group by early August. Homecoming this year is set for Oct. 26-27.

Susan J. Boutwell can be reached at susan.j.boutwell@dartmouth.edu.