By Daniel C. Houston
A countywide burn ban and the most severe period of drought and wildfires in recent memory won’t prevent Baylor Chamber of Commerce from putting on the traditional Homecoming bonfire this Friday on Fountain Mall.
On Aug. 16, the McLennan County Commissioners Court ordered “outdoor burning is prohibited in all unincorporated areas of McLennan County.” While this would restrict burning in the county’s rural areas, the ban itself does not apply to the city of Waco, which is considered an “incorporated” area, according to Frank Patterson, emergency management coordinator for Waco and McLennan County.
As a result, Chamber did not need to request a special exception from the county in order to hold this year’s bonfire, although Patterson said Chamber may have had to work out details with the Waco fire marshal.
A member of Chamber responsible for planning the bonfire declined to comment and the Waco fire marshal did not return a telephone call.
Baylor officials confirmed Monday the bonfire will occur on Fountain Mall as it has in previous years, saying the drought will not substantively influence the way they approach managing the controlled fire, although this past summer’s changes to Fountain Mall will prompt them to take additional precautions.
Among these renovations, the two streets running parallel on either side of Fountain Mall previously served as a “preset fire barrier,” according to Director of Student Activities Matt Burchett, and, because the roads were replaced this summer by sidewalks and additional grass, more extensive fire-safety measures are now necessary.
“We’re having metal plates built to surround the bonfire to basically make a fire pit so the fire doesn’t creep out past the metal barrier,” Warren Ricks, assistant vice president and chief risk management officer, said. “Then we’re going to put sand around the backside of the fire pit to dissipate the heat from where the metal plate touches the ground. They’ll have another barricade around that to keep anyone from getting close to that hot metal plate, and then Chamber will have fire extinguishers.”
Ricks confirmed there will also be two fire engines on hand in the case of an emergency, although, he said, this has been established Baylor bonfire procedure for years.
Unlike in the past, there will not be a lining of sand between the fire and the grass.
Instead, Ricks said, officials will simply allow the grass within the area enclosed by the protective steel plates to burn. Baylor will then scrape up the dead grass after the event and prepare new grass to be installed in its place.
Ricks said the previous tactic of covering the ground with sand typically killed the grass underneath, so the new approach would not change anything in that regard.