Photography, Stories Told

You know your bonfire is outrageous when the EPA gets involved

The EPA demands that an impact statement be filed before it is lit. The local airport routes landing airplanes around it. Its intense, radiating heat evaporates falling raindrops well before they hit the ground and repels all but the boldest spectators. It’s the homecoming bonfire at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and it’s massive.

2015 Rose-Hulman bonfire

Stepping back, the fire illuminates those who’ve come to see it, casting them in glowing silhouette.

People watching the bonfire

It’s only when you move back far enough to get the licking flames fully in the frame that you see this fire’s enormity.

People watching the bonfire

The flames are so bright that the surrounding trees are lit as during the daytime.

People and trees well lit

My first bonfire was my freshman year at Rose, in 1985. We swiped railroad ties from rail yards all over west-central Indiana. I feel sure now that the railroads knew what we were up to and gave tacit approval. You can’t steal this many ties without attracting attention! Today, I’m told, the ties are purchased and trucked in. We also used to pilfer the outhouse that is always placed atop the structure. I’m sure the last outhouse within a hundred miles was filched 20 years ago. Today’s outhouses must be purpose-built.

2015 Rose-Hulman bonfire

I went to all four bonfires during my time at Rose, and maybe one or two more while I lived in Terre Haute in the several years that followed. It wasn’t until my sons were teenagers that I went back — I wanted to spark their interest in higher education. What better way to start than to share one of the most audacious events at any school anywhere.

This year, I took my youngest son, now 16, and my girlfriend and her 14-year-old son. That young man just started high school — and has engineering aspirations and aptitudes. He’s right up Rose-Hulman’s alley!


I’ve shared the bonfire from a few past years, too: 2009, 2010, and 2012.

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13 thoughts on “You know your bonfire is outrageous when the EPA gets involved

  1. Quite a bonfire indeed. Did the EPA become involved because of burning chemically treated railroad ties? The EPA thing makes me think of the scene from Ghostbusters. I presume Rose’s first meeting with them went better. :)

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  2. I think the height of the stacked ties reached a peak sometime in the late 70s; it was supposed to be the year of graduation for the freshman, which means ours was about 74 ties high. I seem to recall an imposed limit of about 100 ties vertically (that’s not a typo), which was sort-of calculated from stability and safety concerns. A couple of the classes did exceed the year number, but I don’t know if they actually reached 100. Someone had to climb to the top to decorate it, after all! After that they placed a maximum on the total number of ties in the assembly, and I don’t know if that is still in place.

    In 1973, I think, it was the tallest it had ever been to that moment in time, and someone got the bright idea to put a bucket of gasoline in the outhouse (still a real one that year) to ensure that it burned up before falling.

    I remember that the circumference and height were both very large, and there was some extra fuel oil poured inside the base to give it a bigger kick when it was lit. The railroad flares they tossed into the middle fired it up pretty quickly, and the flames roared up the stack, creating a noticeable draft toward the bonfire. It was interesting to watch fog start to rise from the surrounding ground, and get swept toward the fire! All the parking lot lights went out due to their sensors being overwhelmed by the light.

    It hit its maximum intensity very rapidly – maybe 5-10 minutes. When it was lit, there were people standing within 20-30 feet of the base. By the time it was at its peak, we had all moved back another 100 feet, and that was for the daring. The radiative heat was so great that patches of grass were bursting into flame at least 20 feet away – it was definitely not due to embers, because everything was going straight up at that moment. I think the really tough students had moved almost to the edge of the creek by this time – probably 150 feet. Even having seen two or three before this, it was almost terrifying in its intensity.

    Those were the days! LOL.

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