Big Game bonfire’s back — healthier, safer and a shining light

The work team poses with the bonfire apparatus.

A partnership between the Rally Committee and experts in pyrotechnics and metal fabrication has created a new annual centerpiece for the Big Game Bonfire Rally, where the traditional wood-burning fire — a staple for more than a century — was increasingly plagued by Spare the Air Alert days, drought, wind, health concerns and extreme local fire conditions. (UC Berkeley photo by Violet Carter)

It’s been a UC Berkeley tradition for more than 100 years, the towering Greek Theatre bonfire held the night before the Cal-Stanford Big Game. But bonfires — like campfires, fire pits and wood-burning fireplaces — aren’t wise in fire-ravaged California. Drought and high winds canceled the students’ bonfire in 2015 and again in 2018, the state’s deadliest year yet for wildfires.

This Friday night, however, before Saturday’s 122nd Big Game, the show will go on — with an environmental twist. The campus’s Rally Committee, in partnership with local pyrotechnic and design/build experts, has engineered a liquid petroleum-based, flame-shooting, multi-tiered aluminum and steel structure that debuts at 7 p.m. The students call their effort Project Phoenix.

A photo of a wood-burning bonfire at the Greek Theatre during a Big Game Bonfire Rally..

Bonfires at previous Big Game rallies were created by stacking 126 wooden pallets and setting them afire to create flames that rose four stories high. (Historical photo courtesy of Rally Committee)

“This was a worthy thing to get behind — bringing the excitement of fire to the bonfire event, but being conscious of safety concerns,” says Dave X, a project partner who is a licensed pyrotechnic operator at Pyro Spectaculars, a California-based pyrotechnics and fireworks company. He uses X as his last name.

“We’ve had a dream team,” says X, who also contributed his longtime fire experience at Burning Man, the Black Rock Desert event in Nevada where many artists create and manipulate fire in their installations. “And the students had all the energy in the world to do what others might not have made time for.”

Project Phoenix began with a challenge to the Rally Committee last year by the campus’s fire marshal, who canceled the 2018 bonfire that was to fall on a Spare the Air Alert day in the region, and its Office of Environment, Health and Safety. The students were told it was time they develop a new pre-Big Game event that’s “more sensitive to environmental, fire and other safety concerns.”

The new bonfire structure at the Greek Theatre is fueled by propane and butane

Flames leap from the new propane- and butane-fueled bonfire structure, with the Fiat Lux Torch burning in the background, at this year’s Big Game Bonfire Rally in the Greek Theatre. (Rally Committee photo by Joseph Gonzalez)

Claire Robbins, a Berkeley senior who chairs this year’s Rally Committee, says it was “disheartening beyond belief” to have to change the longstanding Berkeley ritual, which began in 1892 and involved the ritualistic stacking and burning of 126 wooden pallets so flames would leap four stories high. Historically, freshmen also were ordered to add more wood pallets to the fire when it got low, as the crowd chanted, “Freshmen, more wood!”

She added that attendance at last year’s rally dropped from 8,000 to 1,500, since the bonfire — beloved for its history and “awe factor”— wasn’t part of the program.

“But the time had come,” adds Robbins, who is majoring in molecular and cell biology and in data science, “ … and Berkeley students have an innate desire to try all possible solutions before letting something important to them disappear.”

Fire expert Dave X inspects a flame effect unit.

Dave X, a licensed pyrotechnic operator for Pyro Spectaculars who also has extensive fire experience at Burning Man, inspects one of the flame effect units that will be installed in the bonfire apparatus debuting at the 2019 Big Game Bonfire Rally. (UC Berkeley photo by Violet Carter)

The new 14-foot-tall by 8-foot-wide structure will produce “exciting and intimate flames” from nine different columns — some containing propane, others butane — in heights and sequences orchestrated remotely, with no residual embers, says X.

Adds Robbins, “A propane-based bonfire emits 99 percent less particulate matter than a wood-burning one, which is an incredibly important adaptation to make in the climate crisis we’re currently in.”

The Greek Theatre audience hasn’t held lit candles for years at the Big Game Bonfire Rally’s finale, when the fire fades. But other traditions will remain tomorrow night, including performances by the Cal Band and other spirit groups, rousing cheers led by the Rally Committee and remarks by the chancellor and Cal football coaches and players.

Allison Weber and Nicholas Hebel are responsible for the pyrotechnics and fire elements at the Big Game Bonfire Rally.

Allison Weber and Nicholas “Ber” Hebel, Berkeley’s cannoneers, play a big role at the Big Rally Bonfire Rally. They’re in charge of the pyrotechnics and fire elements. (Rally Committee photo by Joseph Gonzalez)

After the University of California was founded in 1894, the words “Let there be light” in its motto inspired students to light unofficial and sporadic bonfires to show their school pride, according to campus history.  But in 1901, safety concerns about these fires led to the formation of the student Rally Committee, which was tasked with hosting all bonfires.

The Greek Theatre, which opened in 1903, is said to have been built, in large part, to host these bonfires, which at that point were held before every home football game. Over the years, that number dropped to three bonfires per season, then to just one — on the eve of Big Game.

“Each rally, the students collaborated to build the wooden structure that they would later watch go up in flames, a special kind of project that students could really rally around,” says Robbins. “The fact that it didn’t change for over 100 years is a testament to how much this symbol of light has meant to the student body.”

Last year, in place of the canceled bonfire, the Rally Committee did fundraising for the California Fire Foundation, which provides emotional and financial assistance to families of fallen firefighters, firefighters and the communities they serve.

They also began considering options to the wood-burning bonfire, such as burning sawdust bricks or lighting fuel atop a pool of water. But the idea of a liquid petroleum-based bonfire took hold after students consulted with experts at Pyro Spectaculars, a longstanding resource for the campus cannoneers, who guard and operate the California Victory Cannon, and at SMA Events, an Oakland design/build agency that created the 11-foot-tall, propane-powered Fiat Lux Torch first used at the 2016 Big Game Bonfire Rally. Robbins says that when she approached the campus fire marshal, Amy Chen, with the new bonfire proposal, she “welcomed the idea with open arms. We needed that permission to pursue this project.”

Experts from Pyro Spectaculars greet the founder of Sheet Metal Alchemist

Pay Dyas (left) and Dave X (carrying a flame effect unit) from Pyro Spectaculars greet Sean Cusack, founder and lead designer at SMA Events in Oakland, where the new bonfire centerpiece was designed and built. Berkeley students were interested in “learning and putting their hands on the project,” says Cusack, “but also in owning the knowledge.” (UC Berkeley photo by Violet Carter)

Pat Goff, EHS executive director, calling the old bonfire “an archaic and risky event,” says the new decorative art piece “is creative and will be a great focal point … it maintains the bonfire tradition of building a structure and watching it burn, but it will be safer and much more protective of the environment.”

Cusack says the Berkeley students approached SMA Events with “a bit of a design direction and liked the idea of sticking with a design that was bonfire-related, literally. They also wanted to be able to put it together by hand each year, and our job was to make something to achieve both artistic and realistic goals.”

SMA Events often works on large-scale installations, such as “La Victrola,” a 20-foot-tall gramophone at Burning Man in 2016 that also was a stage for a 1900-1920s-era live performance. But Cusack says his team enjoyed working with the Rally Committee on a much smaller assignment — the Fiat Lux Torch — and welcomed the students back for this year’s bonfire project.

Claire Robbins, chair of the Rally Committee, works on new bonfire structure in Oakland.

Claire Robbins, chair of the Rally Committee, checks a section of the bonfire innovation, which she hopes will become a model nationwide for a more sustainable and safe way to enjoy bonfires. (Rally Committee photo by Joseph Gonzalez)

The new bonfire rally centerpiece has four main sections that weigh about 130 pounds each, along with artistic, flame-shaped elements that fit together “like you’re building a staircase,” says Cusack. Nine square-shaped columns — four on the structure’s first layer, four on the second, and one at the top — hide the propane and butane flame units. The design work took about 40 to 50 hours, he says, and two weeks were needed to physically construct the apparatus. It can be assembled by students in less than an hour, and it comes apart to store for the next year’s rally.

Robots typically cut and bend the metal pieces for SMA Events projects, but Cusack says Rally Committee members also wanted to pitch in, “and that is very unusual. They were interested in learning and putting their hands on it, but then also owning the knowledge. They put the structure together with us recently at the shop and didn’t have any problems. I don’t think they really need me this year (at the Greek Theatre), but I’m going, just in case.”

Robbins says the Rally Committee is in the midst of a fundraising campaign for the $64,000 project and is “confident in Berkeley’s ability to see the need for change and appreciate the continuity of this tradition in a new light.”

“I hope we can pioneer a new era of bonfires across the nation,” she adds, “an era focused on sustainability and safety, while still enjoying fire as a symbol of light.”