It was supposed to burn tonight, a stack of wood over thirty feet high, with an outhouse painted burnt orange on top. In a tradition dating back to 1909, Texas A&M University students and alumni gather together to light a massive bonfire before the annual rivalry football game with the University of Texas at Austin.
This year could well be the last meeting of the two teams, as A&M has left for another conference. And it could be the last bonfire for students, families and alumni at A&M wanting to ignite their passions against UT.
But nothing will burn this year.
A burn ban is in effect for Robertson County, where the bonfire usually takes place.
“We’ve been under severe drought conditions now for a year,” says Michelle Haver, a court coordinator for the Robertson county judge. The burn ban has been going on for nine months, and is renewed every ninety days by the commissioner’s court.
Last week they met to discuss whether or not to continue the ban. While there has been some rain recently, it wasn’t enough to lift the ban.
“A student [representing the bonfire group] came to speak with the court last week,” says Haver. “He said he wasn’t going to push the issue at all because he knew how bad conditions were in the county. The same thing happened last year.”
The students behind the pyre make a point on the bonfire’s website that nothing will be burning this year. “It is important that everyone understand that under no circumstances will Student Bonfire act against a burn ban,” the group says on their website. “For the safety of our surrounding community and the future of the Bonfire Tradition, we must and will exercise discipline and demonstrate sound leadership, just two of the things the Bonfire experience provides in abundance every year to generations of Aggies.”
A collapse of the bonfire killed twelve students in 1999. At that point the event was called into question and the tradition was stopped. A group of students later decided to hold the bonfire on their own off-campus, resurrecting the practice three years later.
So what will Aggies do at the bonfire site? ”Visitors will be welcome to have a look around, take pictures, talk with leaders and participants, and generally enjoy a little Good Bull before we send t.u. off with one last whoopin’,” says a statement on the students’ website (“t.u.” is an Aggie term for the University of Texas).
The bonfire stack will be open starting at 3pm today and each day leading up to the game.
Next year — and at least until 2018 — there will be no meetup between the historic rivals, and it’s unclear what will become of the bonfire tradition. One thing both rivals probably share is a hope that the drought will be over by the next time UT and A&M meet on the field.