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Touching the Bonfire and Other Risks

Risk Reward.png.jpgHanover Fire Chief Martin McMillan’s well written explication last Monday of his tight control over the Homecoming bonfire, and the Town’s and the College’s efforts to prevent freshman from touching it, was entirely inward looking. Though he talked about risk and reward — the right way to think about any activity — he did not look beyond the problem of the bonfire itself.

The Chief listed risks at many levels associated with the Homecoming fire and students attempting to touch it:

  • Students could be injured or even killed if the bonfire collapses on them;
  • His own firefighters could be injured or killed trying to save students;
  • Dartmouth could be open to liability in the event of an accident at this College-sanctioned event;
  • As a matter of morality and liability, the Chief himself could bear responsibility for an event on which he must literally sign off;
  • The Town could be held responsible, too, in the event of an accident.

Should that list of risk factors be the end to our reflection on the matter? That there are risks inherent in the bonfire, and therefore students should be kept away?

Recall first that the bonfire has been held formally or informally since 1888, and in that period of time there has never been a fatality in Hanover. A few students have received slight burns, and in recent years both students and S&S officers have been injured when officers have tackled students trying to touch the fire.

Secondly, though the Chief’s arguments have existed for many years, it has only been since the arrival of Chief McMillan in Hanover in May 2014 that the Hanover Fire Department has made strenuous efforts to stop students touching the fire. Previous Chiefs have had a more laissez-faire attitude — without any of the untoward consequences that Chief McMillan fears. Of course, such a decision is within the Chief”s prerogative, but he could exercise his discretion quite differently, if he so chose.

As for liability, anyone can sue anyone in America today, but the argument is thin that a student breaking a rule against touching the bonfire can then turn around and sue the College or the Town or the Chief in the event of an injury doing so. If there is a high risk of liability, the Chief should produce a letter from counsel, and the issue will be settled. But otherwise, as with protestations that insurance is an issue, I am not swayed by assertions of liability from non-lawyers.

Many people cite the 1999 Texas A&M disaster (twelve students died and twenty-seven were injured when the Aggies bonfire collapsed) as a warning of what could happen here — but recall that the tragedy in Texas occurred while the pyre was under construction; no fire was involved.

Let’s look more broadly at the issue of risk. Virtually every activity contains some element of risk, and as a society and as individuals, we accept that on rare occasions harmful results can occur in the conduct of seemingly ordinary activities. For example, we all routinely drive in automobiles, even though there were 37,461 deaths in auto accidents in 2016 in America.

Closer to home, I recall that my son and a pal, when they were twelve years old — and such is the case today, too, I believe — could rent a canoe from the Ledyard Canoe Club and paddle blissfully in any direction on the Connecticut without proving that they could swim or showing evidence of any sense of responsibility (a hurdle that would have been tough at that time of their lives for them to overcome). In the United States deaths in boating accidents numbered 701 in 2016, and on average 3,536 people die each year from unintentional drownings (non-boating related). Yet boating goes on all summer here.

I could go on in this vein regarding the risk of death from football, whitewater kayaking, vending machines, falling down stairs, and so on. Should we stop people walking across the Green when there is a risk of lightning (an average of fifty-one Americans die each year from lightning strikes). Needless to say, nobody has ever been hit by lightning on the Green, but as Ronald Reagan used to say about the complete improbability of death from overwork, “Why take the risk?”

Try as I might, I could not find any evidence of serious injuries or accidental deaths from a bonfire in the United States (though this year and in 2001 people committed suicide by intentionally running into the Burning Man bonfire in California).

Where does that leave us? I’d say that there is no serious justification for triple levels of defense around the Homecoming bonfire. So just what is going on? Why is the Chief so adamant about protecting everyone from the supposedly perilous bonfire — even though its risks over more than a century have proven to be no more than theoretical? Perhaps we are seeing a sense on his part that the Dionysian qualities of touching the fire have no value. Let’s just say that we can all debate that point. Or perhaps the scolds in our world need to stop something, anything, in order to assert control. I don’t really know. Why single out the heretofore-risk-free bonfire in a world of endless numbers of risky activities?

When I met with the Chief, I certainly accepted that S&S guard the bonfire. After all, what fun would touching it be if doing so were allowed. I suggested a slight compromise: that the bonfire be every bit as high as it is today (a height not even close to the never-to-be-repeated achievement of the 100-tier-high Class of 1979 bonfire), but that it be more dome-shaped so that the risk of collapse is obviated.

We’ll see what happens next year. Will common sense prevail?

Addendum: The LA Times reports on West Coast bonfires:

The Stanford bonfire has roots going back to the 1890s, according to university historians.

Stanford discontinued its bonfires on a campus lake bed in the 1970s when rowdy teenagers disrupted the event. After the bonfire was revived in the 1980s, it was moved to another part of the campus in 1994 to avoid harming the tiger salamanders in the lake bed.

Though less prominent in California, bonfires are wildly popular at colleges and high schools in other states, and attempts to squelch them because of injuries have caused strident protests.

Addendum: In the UK, where Guy Fawkes Night bonfires are a tradition going back to 1605, deaths have occurred when burrowing hedgehogs have been accidentally burned by the blazes, but no humans have died there.

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

If memory serves the star-shaped bonfire structure is the result quite some years ago of a careful analysis and design by a bunch of Thayer School engineering types who determined the most stable shape which would collapse in on itself as it burned. Wouldn’t be too hard to check in the Archives.

Addendum: And another:

I read Chief McMillan’s letter and your response and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where one could go, for say four years, and listen to opposing viewpoints and make up their minds for themselves?”

Addendum: And another:

Speaking of “bliss” on the Connecticut, this same mentality killed “Tubestock” (if you remember that from the early ‘90’s). Big fun while it lasted.

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