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Lakebed bonfire plans doused; rally, fire set for Arrillaga Plaza

STANFORD -- Stanford University's Big Game bonfire, canceled last year because of its possible effect on the rare tiger salamander, will not be rekindled at Lagunita, the campus lake, according to the Axe Committee.

Instead, the student spirit group will stage a rally and fire Thursday, Nov. 17, at Arrillaga Plaza, the amphitheater between the Arrillaga Family Sports Center and the DeGuerre Pool complex. Start time will be approximately 10 p.m., after the Gaieties performance in Memorial Auditorium.

The rally will include a fire “much bigger than a campfire, but not as big as a bonfire,” said senior Craig Zajac, chair of the Axe Committee.

Participating in the rally will be the Incomparable Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band, Stanford a cappella groups performing a collaboration, Dean of Admissions James Montoya, and football Coach Bill Walsh with his senior-class football players. Alumnus Hal Mickelson, former voice of the Stanford Band, will serve as master of ceremonies.

This summer, Stanford's Lake Commission told the Axe Committee it could no longer hold bonfires on the lakebed, which is dry in the fall.

The commission reviewed information about the threatened tiger salamander, which lives in the lakebed and nearby hills. It also listened to concerns “about fire hazards, air pollution and being a good neighbor to our surrounding communities,” said Terry Shepard, director of university communications and a member of the Lake Commission.

The bonfire tradition began in the 1890s in open fields near Encina Hall. Then it was moved to the lakebed, where it was held almost continuously until the mid 1970s, when it was plagued by rowdy teenagers and construction injuries. After a break of 10 years, the Axe Committee revived the tradition. The discovery that the tiger salamanders use the lake for breeding led Axe Committee members to cancel the conflagration last year.

The California tiger salamander is not officially listed as endangered, but is a candidate for listing, according to Alan Launer, a researcher at Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology and member of the Lake Commission.

“Nobody has the time or funding to investigate” the role a giant bonfire plays in the life of tiger salamanders, Launer said.

“It might be fine, or it might barbecue a bunch of salamanders, but we just don't know for sure,” he said. “Given the uncertainty, the public agencies in charge of protecting the salamander probably would take a dim view of such a potentially detrimental activity in the lakebed.”

Zajac said he and his committee are “political realists.”

“Clearly the days of the large bonfires are now over,” he said. “However, the tradition of a fire of some sort at some location was foremost in our planning for the Thursday night event.”

Last year, the committee substituted for the bonfire a light show at Hoover Tower. Zajac said it was “an interesting experiment, but it still lacked something - namely, a fire.”



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