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California and the West

Despite Texas Deaths, Colleges Hold Bonfires

Rituals: Students at UCLA and elsewhere say they are shaken by the Texas A&M tragedy, but continue to have blazes as part of 'big game' spirit rallies.

November 19, 1999|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pep rallies preceding a weekend of college football rivalries may be tempered by the deaths of at least 11 Texas A&M students building a 40-foot pyre, but California college students proceeded Thursday with their traditional pregame blazes.

At Stanford and UC Berkeley, students fired up their spirits for the "big game" at campus bonfires. UCLA undergrads ignited their traditional bonfire in preparation for Saturday's game against USC.

Although officials and students at the schools expressed sympathy for the Texas students, none expressed concern about the safety of their celebrations, which feature much smaller fires.

At UCLA, students Thursday stuffed copies of the student newspaper into pallets for kindling as they listened to a colleague read a news report of the Texas A&M accident.

Campus fire marshal Gary Dunger and a number of his staff members and students nailed together hundreds of pallets in the shape of a pyramid about 20 feet high and about 15 feet wide at the base. They then encircled the area with a metal fence to keep students at least 50 feet from the flames.

In past years, students built the structure, said senior Samantha Scher, director of campus spirit.

"This year the fire marshal's office took a more active role in building it," she said.

She said that when the fire was ignited, student speakers would recognize the students who died at Texas A&M.

Sophomore Alex Kaplan said he did not believe that the bonfire should be eliminated because of the tragedy.

"It's about history," he said.

Renzo Salerno, a 1998 UCLA graduate who was helping, said the rally is an important campus event. "Everybody's cheering when they see the effigy of [USC mascot] Tommy Trojan go up in flames," he said.

UCLA canceled its bonfire twice in recent years, once in sympathy with students whose apartments near campus were burned in a fire days before the scheduled bonfire rally, and again when high winds posed a fire hazard, Dunger said.

USC students permanently eliminated their bonfire rally two years ago after complaints that the annual rite--which included the hanging and burning of UCLA mascot teddy bears--too closely resembled lynchings.

At Berkeley, school officials said they have been careful to regulate the annual bonfire that precedes the big game against Stanford.

Although students have not been injured recently at California college bonfires, the fires have been called off for other safety concerns. In October 1996, the Berkeley bonfire was canceled because of the danger posed by high winds.

Despite the severity of the Texas A&M accident, the long tradition of celebratory bonfires probably will prove more powerful than safety concerns, students say. 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.

At Duke University, 1,000 students demonstrated in 1998 after safety-conscious college officials banned bonfires, some of them setting fire to benches.

The controversy over bonfires at Duke began in 1992, when 13 students were injured at a bonfire after a basketball game, said Keith Lawrence, a spokesman for the Durham, N.C., university. One student, who fell face-first into the fire, suffered third-degree burns.

Duke students defied a 1994 ban on bonfires, which prompted campus police to go undercover to arrest students starting fires. When Duke beat archrival Carolina in a 1997 basketball game, students setting fires clashed with campus police, Lawrence said.

This year, after a compromise between students and the administration resulted in the restoration of bonfires, three students suffered minor burns after a spring basketball game.

In the United States, bonfires were important parts of celebrations held by French and German settlers in Louisiana during the early 1700s. Historians say it was natural for the ritual to be picked up in communities where college football is followed with near-religious devotion.

At the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where thousands of townsfolk join students for the bonfire before the Auburn game, Dean of Students Tom Strong said that in light of the Texas A&M accident, "We have to examine what we have done over the years, but it's such a strong tradition that I don't think we will stop having them."

About 15,000 attend the Alabama bonfire, Strong said. "It's a huge event here. Everybody is there. But I'm not sure if we would have one next year if it had happened in our campus."

Times staff writers Edgar Sandoval and Indraneel Sur, special correspondent Sam Bruchey and researcher John Jackson contributed to this report.

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UNRIVALED

There is nothing like "the big game" for college football players, coaches and fans. D1

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